There’s been so much talk over the past few months about Rebecca Stead’s second novel for Middle Grade readers, When You Reach Me. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Awards whispering. I’ve read it and I loved it, just like everyone else. Certainly, When You Reach Me makes book people look at Stead as a writer with many, many books in her future, and it’s the sort of book that should make readers wonder what she’ll write next. I decided to read First Light because I was so impressed by When You Reach Me. As it turns out, Stead’s first book has tremendous merit as well, and is in many ways, as creative and finely wrought as her latest novel.
First Light may be science fiction, but it is a story that is incredibly timely, as the “real world” thread of the narrative focuses on a boy whose scientist father is studying global warming. Peter is thrilled at the chance to travel with his parents to Greenland, where his father will be conducting field work. His mother is also a scientist, who studies mitochondrial DNA. For as long as Peter can remember, she has suffered from terrible, debilitating headaches that seem to shift her whole mood towards a sadness no one can penetrate. As the family is caught up in preparations for their journey, Peter begins to experience more frequent headaches himself, sometimes accompanied by strange visions. He wonders if he has inherited some secret illness from his mother, but neither of his parents ever speak to him about his mother’s headaches, and Peter wonders if there is a something serious that they are keeping from him. He doesn’t realize it, but this trip to Greenland will take him to the heart of the mystery he is only beginning to sense. The second thread of the narrative belongs to Thea, a girl who lives underneath the arctic ice in a community forged by a hunted people, generations before her. Her ancestors came to live in Gracehope, a secret world that they build under the ice, and ever since then, they have feared the outside world. Thea is not afraid, however. Rather she dreams of seeing the sky and the horizon and the constellations she has only read about. She wants to travel to the surface, but to do so, she must act in secret, turning against the wishes of many elders in Gracehope. Peter and Thea are destined to meet, and when they do both find answers to questions they didn’t even know they had.
What’s remarkable about First Light is its potential to appeal to all sorts of different children. Do you like science? Read this. How about arctic adventures or survival fiction? Read this. Realistic family stories? Yep. Unsolved mysteries? OK. Secret worlds? Here you go. With all this going on, you might wonder if Stead has taken on too much. Is she trying to bring together way too many genres and topics? No way. Somehow, everything feels balanced and connected. In creating and describing Gracehope, her world-building is outstanding. Stead pays attention to details and makes sure we can imagine them, from the berry pancakes that Thea eats for breakfast and her fur outerwrap and the seven bracelets on her arm, to the decriptions of the skaters streaming down the Mainway and the vast icy council chamber where the elders meet. All of it is there for us to picture. This makes for a more powerful reading experience, and of course, any science fiction or fantasy fan looks for convincing world building.
There must have been a great deal of research involved to get the science of this novel right, as well as the facts around working in the arctic and even the details about the habits and skills of the Gracehope sled dogs. I felt like this book taught me stuff, but not in a “let’s just take a little break now for some science” sort of way. It’s integrated into the flow of the story. Here’s a bit that was especially interesting, when Peter is working with Jonas, his father’s assistant, who has just dug a snow pit to study the ice pattern:
“Jonas began to sketch the wall in his notebook. “I’m also looking at the size of the snow grains, and I’m noting how densely the snow is packed. See, this snow up top is pretty loosely packed — we call that ‘fist’ because I can shove my fist right into it. Then there’s ‘four fingers, ‘two fingers,’ ‘one finger,’ ‘pencil,’ and ‘knife.’ Not so technical, right? But it works. Jump down here and I’ll show you.” ”
After this, Jonas goes on to explain how scientists use the data to determine patterns in weather over time, and this helps them to see how fast the ice cap is moving and melting. I was impressed by the detail in the science, and that it was communicated in a way that kids will understand and not only that, they will find it compelling.
Beyond the science and the world-building, First Light is thematically rich as well. It’s a story about human potential and risk-taking and possibility. It’s about having vision and being open to change and trying to make change when it’s needed. I liked that Stead found a way to use science fiction to drive home the world-changing impact of global warming, but leaving a place for hope. First Light would make an outstanding read aloud for grade 4 and up. Rebecca has a beautiful website devoted to the book with lots of information about the science that should further inspire readers. What will she do next? I couldn’t even begin to guess, but you can bet I’ll be watching. This kind of creative vision doesn’t come around everyday.
First Light is published by Yearling.