Have you ever been browsing the shelves at the bookstore and come across a cover that’s so beautiful you have to buy the book? That’s what happened to me with “Waiting for Unicorns”. Even if I ended up not liking the book, at least I’d have a pretty cover to look at! Well, rest assured that wasn’t the case. For a first novel, I thought Beth Hautala did a great job developing not only the characters, but the setting as well. Manitoba isn’t a typical setting for a book, but the author was more than capable of helping paint a detailed picture of what Talia was seeing and experiencing throughout the story. This was really important because the events of the story are so dependent on the setting.
My favorite part of the writing is how the author was able to incorporate factual information into the story. I thought all the facts and about whales and birds of the Arctic were really interesting! For example, did you know that the Arctic tern will make the equivalent of three round-trips to the moon in its lifetime? Me neither! It was also interesting to think about how families survive in such a remote part of the world. I think young readers would really appreciate the attention to detail in the writing about Manitoba and the people who live there.
“Waiting for Unicorns” is a shining example of “heart fiction”. There are such real emotions shown in the story through thought and actions. Talia is still grieving over the loss of her mom as she prepares to say goodbye to her father for most of the summer. While he’s away, Talia becomes a teenager, kisses a boy, and discovers that people show their love in different ways. It would seem that being away from her friends and her home would prevent Talia from dealing with her emotions, but really the isolation forces her to face her feelings and develop deeper relationships with the few people in the town.
The Arctic isn’t your typical summer getaway location, but that’s exactly where twelve-year-old Talia is heading. Her father’s a whale researcher who stays out on the water for weeks at a time collecting data on whales. This leaves Talia with too much time to worry and think. She worries that her dad won’t come back. She thinks about losing her mom less than a year ago. And that she wasn’t able to say goodbye.
There might not be much to do in Manitoba, but there sure are some interesting people. For example, Simon the Guitar Boy and his grandfather, Birdman. Simon loves playing the guitar, and Birdman is named because, well, he loves watching birds. Though she’s at first taken aback by these two unique individuals, she quickly comes to love their quirky nature and thinks of them as part of her family.
While her dad is out on the sea, Talia is able to talk with him on a weekly basis using a handheld radio. After missing two of their regularly scheduled chat dates, she becomes very worried that something terrible has happened. So much can go wrong on a fishing vessel, especially in the icy waters of the Arctic. Sura and her friends try to help her be positive, but after already losing one parent, Talia is especially fearful of losing another.
One thing that helps keep Talia from losing all hope is her wish jar. Since the time when her mom was diagnosed with cancer, she’s been making wishes on paper and adding them to the jar. The one wish she hopes will come true is that she’ll somehow be able to say a final goodbye to her mom. She knows it’s unrealistic, but the rule to the wish jar is that a wish can’t be removed until it comes true.
When her father finally returns, he brings good news. Narwhals have been spotted and Talia is going with her father to see them! Because unicorns have the power to make wishes come true, Talia hopes these unicorns of the sea will be able to do the same. Out on the boat, Talia and her father use the radio equipment to try and locate the narwhals. After more than a week, they have no luck and must return home. But the trip wasn’t for nothing. Talia and her father finally talk about the passing of her mom, and the emptiness left by her mom’s passing seems to get a little smaller.
In the end, Talia starts to reconsider the idea of wishes. She’s gone through some pretty major changes over the course of just a summer. She’s finally started to accept the loss of her mom, and even more importantly, the fact that she’ll never get to say the goodbye she’s been wishing for. Talia leaves Manitoba a year older, and more than a year wiser.
Title: “Waiting for Unicorns”
Author: Beth Hautala (Connect with her on Twitter: @BethHautala)
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publish Date: January 22, 2015
You might also enjoy: “One for the Murphys” by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
My recommended age range: 4th-6th grade