All Screechers Great and Small: An Eco Fairy Tale

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By Nathaniel Rich

WILLODEEN
By Katherine Applegate
Illustrated by Charles Santoso

It was bad enough, as a child of the ’80s, to hear adults warn how terrible things were going to get during my lifetime because of the mistakes they’d made. Children of the ’20s have it worse. They have to hear how much better things were before they were even born — before the age of superfires, superfloods and storms with names from the Greek alphabet. How do you mourn the loss of something you’ve never known? Last year was the hottest in recorded history. Children today may remember it as the coldest year of the rest of their lives.

Katherine Applegate’s “Willodeen,” like most fairy tales, takes place in a world that is familiar in its generalities and supernatural in its particulars. The village of Perchance has a lumber mill and a steam railroad, but its homes are built of logs and mud, the men hunt with bows and arrows, children rarely attend school and villagers speak with wonder about gas lamps in a distant city. Perchance enjoys a “gentle winter climate” — the novel’s sole mention of “climate,” instructively — but autumn is another story. That’s when the “Dragon Sighs” blow, hot winds that spark devouring conflagrations. One of these wildfires killed the brother and parents of our stubborn, freethinking, quasi-feral 11-year-old heroine, Willodeen.

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