Review: Into the Tall Tall Grass

“Yolanda squeezed Rosalind Franklin to her chest and nuzzled her nose in the dog’s fur. She was not going to get rid of her dog, and she and Sonja were not going to foster care. There was no way she was going to let any of that happen.” page 59

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon.
Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon & Schuster Children’s, New York, 2020.
MG fantasy, 330 pages.
Lexile: 660L .
AR Level: not yet leveled.

All the women in Yolanda’s family have some sort of magical gift, including her twin sister, but not her. Her father is away in the military, she’s become estranged from her best friend and her twin, her grandfather has died, and her ailing grandmother asks Yolanda to take her to the only pecan tree left standing on their property after the grass starts growing taller and taller…

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon.

Occasionally I run into a book that seems to be severely underhyped. Sometimes, like with The Secret of the Blue Glass, I can look objectively at the book and see why it might have trouble finding an audience or why it might not appeal to everyone even if I personally loved it. Others I can’t understand why it hasn’t been popular! My only thinking for this one is 2020, or perhaps that some readers disliked the lesbian aspect which is not immediately apparent.

I’ve written about “diverse-adjacent” books before; this one is more stealth diverse. The cover is gorgeous and represents the characters well, but even reading the synopsis, other than the names Yolanda Rodriguez-O’Connell and Wela, nothing that stands out as Latina, and particularly not LGBTQ.

While Yolanda and her sister Sonja are twins, they aren’t identical. In particular, Yolanda has a more Latina appearance while Sonja is more white-passing. They also have very different temperaments and interests, and Sonja is romantically interested in girls while Yolanda is not. Despite these differences, they were very close until a series of events led to their estrangement. Yolanda blames her sister for stealing her best friend, Ghita, and Sonja came into her magic powers, which involve being followed everywhere by bees – to which Yolanda is allergic.

Because the characters are limited, with a tight focus on the five who end up in the tall, tall grass, Ryan is able to explore a complex web of backstory and interpersonal relationships that wouldn’t be possible in another story. The layers of history, misunderstandings, and mistakes uncorrected feel as natural as they do revelationary. The slow way she unfurls different pieces of information makes for an interesting reread and keeps the attention of even jaded readers like myself.

Three devices are used – Yolanda’s more or less present day viewpoint (she sometimes remembers past events within her own lifetime), documentation such as diary entries and descriptions of photographs she finds, and Wela’s stories (mainly about her own parents and siblings). This is so often poorly done, but Ryan handles it beautifully. Although the story moves back and forth in time, the transitions are very readable, and it’s not too difficult to remember the different aspects.

One my biggest problems with magical realism is that one never knows if there is magic or not – frustrating for a librarian making purchasing and cataloging decisions. Ryan subtly turns conventions – the magic is very real, but the family tries to find plausible reasons for any noticeable aspects. The dreamlike quality of the quest also draws from the genre.

Spoiler in this paragraph. My only concern about was how Yolanda’s allergy was eventually handled. Within the story, the ending absolutely makes sense, but I’m not sure how it would read to a person with that disability. I know one person who’s highly allergic to bees, but doesn’t often have contact with them! There’s an added layer about how getting epipens frequently refilled is a challenge in the USA. I so wish Disability in Kidlit was still active as I would love an ownvoice review.

This one definitely tends towards upper middle grade as there is mild romance – kissing, holding hands, talking about liking one another and relationships, so not YA level but not for the youngest MG readers either. Some death and injury could also upset sensitive readers. People and pets get hurt, and some die. It is never gratuitous, the majority of those incidents take place in the past, and only one was described in enough detail to be upsetting for our family.

Additional warnings include: death, cancer, cremation, discrimination, fire, intentional and accidental injury, lying, running away from home (sort of), dog injuries, depression, social anxiety, ostracization, cuts, an inept social worker, comas, a military parent out of contact, and potential family separation.

This is a truly excellent book. I’d suggest it for fans of Lalani of the Distant Sea or readers who want something a bit older and more complex than the Love Sugar Magic series. It’s also one of the rare books that I could see having some crossover appeal to YA readers, as a great deal of the story focuses on identity and emotion. Not sure why this has been so overlooked! Highly recommended.

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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