If there’s one thing Vancouver author Kallie George knows, it’s how to craft a tale full of whimsy. Her Magical Animal Adoption Agency series for beginning readers is full of the kind of subtle quirkiness and mythical animals kids love. George aims her Heartwood Hotel series at a slightly more advanced readership, but maintains her commitment to telling tales that feel like a gentle hug.
In the first instalment, A True Home, Mona the mouse is alone and lost in a terrible storm. She stumbles upon a huge tree and discovers it’s the famous Heartwood Hotel, a stopping place for animals from all over Fernwood. She’s offered a job as a maid and eagerly tries to prove her worth to Mr. Heartwood the Badger and his staff. But it isn’t easy going, not when her fellow maid Tilly the Squirrel keeps trying to get her fired, and definitely not when the whole hotel is threatened by a pack of hungry wolves. Mona has to use all her wits to save her new home.
The second book, The Greatest Gift, picks up this storyline where it left off in A True Home. Mona is now a fixture at the hotel and has even won over Tilly, but as winter settles in, the hotel is faced with new challenges. A fussy guest arrives and begins making demands, a much-needed food shipment seems to have been lost in transit, and someone is making off with what little supplies they have left. Mona soon finds herself out in the snow, in pursuit of a potentially dangerous thief.
The characters deal quite a bit in animal stereotypes – the shy mouse, the hungry wolves, the bumbling bear – but they are depicted with a fairly light hand. The stories themselves have undeniable charm, especially The Greatest Gift, whose plot has some deeper shades of moral and narrative complexity, making it the livelier read.
The illustrations by Stephanie Graegin peppered throughout feel like quick sketches, as if the artist was in residence at the hotel and sat in the corner doing character studies. They would not feel out of place in a publication like Fernwood’s newspaper, The Pinecone Press, further contributing to the whimsical atmosphere.
Both books are evocative of a certain sort of British children’s literature. We get hints of the cozy hearths of The Wind in the Willows, the antics of Beatrix Potter, and the wolves that menace Narnia’s talking animals. All of these are worthy influences, but it would have been nice to see some Canadian content interwoven with the familiar tropes. The animals definitely include North American fauna like raccoons and porcupines, but there are also a couple of inexplicable hedgehogs in the mix. Likewise we have a duchess, hinting that these animals live in some kind of monarchy, which feels distinctly British.
Issues like this make one feel as though it’s best not to dig too deeply into the wider world of Fernwood. The animals in these stories seem to be living more like the animals in our own world, especially the larger predators, but little touches like The Pinecone Press imply a larger society. If there is a duchess, is there a queen? If there is a hotel, are there also towns and cities? Today’s kidlit has a pretty high bar to clear when it comes to world building. Kids weaned on Harry Potter expect to be immersed, and it doesn’t feel like this is a world formed beyond the immediate vicinity of the Heartwood Hotel itself.
Though some of the trappings feel superficial, the emotional core of both books proves surprisingly weighty as we delve into the delicate subject of pushing through the self-doubt and trauma that come from neglect. Mona has spent her life alone, and it isn’t easy for her to trust the other animals and have faith in her own value. It feels right to cheer her on as she builds a new family and improves her confidence.