Review: The Jumbies

“She pitied people. She went inside the ships and saw that some of the people were chained below. She helped them escape and swim to the island.” page 116

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The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste.
Scholastic, New York, 2015.
Middle grade fantasy, 234 pages.
Lexile:  680L  .
AR Level:  4.6 (worth 6.0 points)  .

Corinne La Mer and her father have always lived near the forest, and she’s never questioned that… but she’s never entered it either.  Until one day two boys tie her mother’s necklace to a forest creature and she can’t help but follow.

Jumbies resized

When this was first published, I had just started reading diversely.  Most diverse books still flew right past me, but this book was published by Scholastic!  And it’s a retold tale – one of my favorite genres!  How did I ever miss this one?  It might have been marked as horror.  Recently I saw the second book in the series in this blog post by Shenwei.  Seeing the cover of the second book made me realize that it was fantasy, not horror.

In an odd twist of fate, later that day I stopped by a library book sale, and snagged a used copy of the Jumbies for 25 cents just before closing!

While this definitely isn’t a bubbly novel, it exceeded my expectations.  Baptiste does employ the narrative device of a misfit main character who turns out to have been special all along (I’m not considering this to be a spoiler since it’s revealed in the blurb).  However, her Caribbean setting makes it feel fresh and unique.

The dedication (and her wonderful letter at the end of the book) specifically speaks to her desire to write for others like her:

“And to all the children of the Caribbean (no matter your age).  See, you have fairy tales too.”

I’ve noticed that many authors of color tend to be defter at character description, and Baptiste is no exception.  Everyone was easy for me to picture, both in their physical appearance and their character.  Although it took time to develop, the friendships between Corinne and the other children were one of my favorite parts of the book.  Of course, there’s lots of action and adventure as well.  This book was fast-paced, and when things weren’t moving it was suspenseful.  Baptiste also includes references to the history of the Caribbean, including the passage from the header quote.

Spoilers  One of the only areas I was a bit iffy on was Malik.  Initially I was worried that he was deaf (in which case there would have been problems with his portrayal).  However near the end of the book it is revealed that he does speak, just prefers to communicate without words most of the time.  He is actively present in the book and there is even one scene where his not speaking is a distinct advantage.  I felt he was the smartest character in the book.  But I would like to know more about why he doesn’t speak (trauma? selective mutism?) and am hoping the second book will provide more answers about him and his brother.  End of Spoilers

I’m not sure how suitable this book will be for read-alouds.  There’s a lot of page-turning excitement to keep kids listening, but the chapters are irregular in length (most are very short while some are as long as ten pages) so it would require some planning ahead, especially if you have a specific time frame allowed for reading.

There’s not much to warn about.  I wouldn’t recommend this for young or easily scared readers.  While I wouldn’t classify it as horror, it includes fantastical elements from horror stories.

Corinne’s mother has died before the story begins, and other characters die off-screen during this book.  Some parents might take issue with La Diabless, creatures somewhat like succubi, but I felt they were appropriate for middle grade readers.  There is also an incident of animal abuse which the main character is strongly against.

I would happily recommend this book to middle grade readers who love Rick Riordan.  Teens and adults who enjoy middle grade fantasy will want to pick this one up as well.  I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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