Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Momotaro #1) by Margaret Dilloway, illustrated by Choong Yoon.
Disney Hyperion, New York, 2016.
MG fantasy, 310 pages.
Lexile: not leveled.
AR Level: 3.9 (worth 10.0 points) .
Xander Musashi Miyamoto is your average 6th grader – obsessed with video games, could care less about his homework project on climate change. Also latest in a long line of Momotaros – with a life-or-death quest. As the smallest boy in his class, it’s a good thing his best friend was around when the magic hit – Xander will need all the help he can get.
Xander is biracial white/Asian, and Dilloway specifies both. I was intrigued to see how his Ainu heritage would play out. Indigenous people of Japan, Ainu are even today subject to racism, cultural appropriation, and suppression. His father’s Ainu/Japanese family could be mixed, but if they teach him he’s part Ainu, presumably they’d retain other cultural markers too. Although today considered white, Irish Americans like his mother were once a hated minority.
People remark on Xander’s ethnicity, from a mean classmate to overheard remarks from his best friend’s father and even his own grandmother’s suggestion that his powers will be completely different because he’s biracial. Xander also remarks specifically on the lack of a local Asian community. I wondered why his father chose to stay in the San Diego suburbs and how the local university supported an Asian mythology professor if his family are the only Asians there, but was mostly willing to accept the hand-wavy magic of it.
I didn’t love that he was written as Ainu early, with nothing relating to that heritage later. Xander grows in connection to his ancestry, so I possibly overlooked something, but I’m interested in #ownvoice Ainu reviews, since this is an area I don’t know enough about to give informed commentary. For now I’ll give the benefit of the doubt, but am happy to amplify more knowledgeable voices either in support or detraction.
After about 70 pages we turn from hints at the magic to finally diving in to Dilloway’s magical world. She did a great job with the island and progression of oni, terrain, and events and it was worth sitting through social studies. With 300 pages, characters were fairly sparse and I wished less time had been spent on reality in order to get here faster and flesh out some of the Oni more.
On the other hand, Dilloway does an interesting thing. So far I’ve seen skeptic chosen ones who eventually come around, and chosen ones with special talents from their heritage, and sometimes both. Xander is the first to fully admit he hated learning about his heritage, especially with majority-white surroundings, and point out that the adults should have just told him or shown him it was real and then he would have applied himself a lot better to studying everything his dad was trying to teach!
Why hasn’t this happened before? An obvious reaction that makes sense. While many authors have good work arounds, Dilloway embraces the problem and points out that magic powers, hybrid sidekicks, and other perks make Xander’s heritage seem much cooler to him. I’m especially curious to see this developed in the next book. I won’t say much to avoid spoilers, but another secondary character with Hawaiian heritage might also recur.
Momotaro is tagged “An Asian version of Percy Jackson.” I’m surprised it’s not being pushed like the Riordan Presents although both are from Disney Hyperion. For a book published only five years ago, it was difficult to obtain, and the cover and quality didn’t meet my expectations.
The paperback I bought, though technically used, had clearly never been read, but was showing definite wear after only one reading. I’m not talking about the marks from the reseller sticker either, but how the spine came close to cracking and the covers dented quickly. I had to stop and photograph before reading further. Disappointing, because I’m a rereader. This would not last even with protective measures in a library or school.
Adults will want to be aware this book contains cheating, severe bullying, lying, ghosts, a tsunami-like wave, near drowning, starvation, a youth being beaten, abusive/neglectful/absent/helicopter parents, racial micro and macroaggressions, teachers pushing medication, and a heavy dose of peril. The majority remain well within MG although a few push the envelope, so I wouldn’t suggest this to sensitive or easily triggered readers.
While the main storyline wraps up, a great many questions are raised including one cliffhanger. I’ve tracked down the second book though. The sections drawing from Japanese lore were by far the strongest, so I wonder if I’d have enjoyed it as much were those stories more familiar to me. A joy of diverse MG fantasy is that drawing on diverse scenarios and belief systems keep stories fresh even within the limited freedom of the genre.
Recommended assuming Ainu content is passable.