The Otherwoods

Justine Pucella Winans (Bianca Torre Is Afraid of Everything) makes their middle-grade debut with The Otherwoods, an excitingly suspenseful portal horror led by a cleverly humorous, adorably queer, and intrepid nonbinary tween.

Twelve-year-old River Rydell pretends they can't see the shimmering portals inviting them to the Otherwoods, "a world overlapping our own, where monsters reign." Yet the place is persistent, and every disgusting creature that slips through is visible to River. No one believes in River's ability, which requires awkward exercises in self-control, such as not screaming when a creature their classmates cannot see slithers on their desks. River already struggles with standing out and "it [doesn't] help to be deadnamed in front of the whole class" by Ms. Deery. At least "amazing" Avery Davis stands up for River. Unfortunately, the first time they hang out together, a monster takes Avery into the Otherwoods. River, knowing only they can help their crush, follows. Now, River must face the truth about why the Otherwoods has always beckoned.

Winans conjures a chilling atmosphere, and every moment in the eerie place tests River's mettle: they brave a lizard-like horror erupting with tentacles that ooze ink as well as a cursed bridge and a "very unhelpful psychic." Support comes via Xavier, an "endearing and annoying" spirit; Mr. Fluffy Pancakes, River's kickass cat sidekick who protects against possession; and Charles, the six-foot-tall bug monster under River's bed. Above all, River's magic is a brilliant parallel to their nonbinary identity: "River could be murdered by monsters and everyone would tell their body they were simply imagining it." The Otherwoods is creepy fun with a queer heart, and a cunning and determined protagonist whose growing self-confidence is a joy to experience. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer

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