Note: This review is spoiler-free but will contain mentions of suicidal ideation.
Award-winning author Kacen Callender is returning to the middle grade space with their forthcoming novel Moonflower. The story follows Moon, a child struggling with depression who believes their mother hates them because they’re sad. Every night, Moon escapes to the spirit realm, from which they hope to never return. While there, Moon spends time with their only friend, a being named Wolf. But when the spirit realm is threatened, Moon is the only one who can save it and must turn to celestial beings and guardians for help.
First things first, I have to commend the worldbuilding of this book. It opens on a fairy tale-esque chapter and introduces the lush world of the spirit realm. Callender’s vivid descriptions create a firm distinction between the spirit and living worlds. They offer readers a part of the reason why Moon finds the realm appealing. In the living world, Callender imbues a sort of apocalyptic feeling with an event referred to as the “Long Hot Summer.” It’s reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic, though its presence in the book feels more severe. That further emphasizes Moon’s struggle to stay present in the living world and builds on the heaviness Moon experiences.
Though the story is written with young readers in mind, it carries a hefty exploration of depression and mental health through Moon. Callender writes transparently and refuses to dance around what most people often tend to. As the book is written in first-person, readers gain intimate knowledge about Moon’s depression. One way Callender explores this is through Moon’s race and gender identity. Callender lays out the otherness Moon feels not necessarily solely because of who they are, but the way in which the world responds to them. It’s a poignant analysis rooted deeply in current reality. Readers gain a sense of Moon’s pain, and, again, Callender is adept at creating an empathetic character; every reason Moon lists about why there’s no point to life — whether it’s something readers have or haven’t experienced themselves — makes sense. It’s so easy to feel some of the hurt Moon does, not only because they shouldn’t have to, but also because of how Callender presents it. Moon is a perfect illustration of how hatred (transphobia especially came to mind for me) holds devastating consequences on youth.
Moonflower’s commentary on mental health as a whole is also notable. One example that stands out is Moon not understanding why adults don’t believe children could be sad or struggling. Callender highlights emphasis placed on physical illnesses (like the flu, for instance) – it’s real because we can see indications of it. On the flip side, Moon’s relationship with their mother showcases the general disregard towards mental illnesses, depression specifically. As Moon battles against their brain, they’re sometimes made to feel like they can just not be sad. And like the above point, this, too, exemplifies a detrimental impact.
Something that particularly struck me about this book is the spirituality of it all. One of the running themes throughout is the interconnectedness of everything in the universe. It becomes especially notable as Moon works to save the spirit realm. During their journey, they gain nuggets of information from the celestial beings about the connections that largely emphasize Moon’s general purpose for living, even if they struggle to believe it. Callender deftly weaves that into the fabric of the story. Not only do they demonstrate it through Moon, but they also tie it to others within Moon’s orbit, as well as unravel the impact of generational trauma.
I am a firm supporter of children’s books delving frankly into tough topics, and Moonflower is a beautiful example of why. In a book exploring depression and being suicidal, I expected the gravity of the topic to noticeably weigh down the story. But it never quite does. Though the story is fraught with sadness, it’s not without hope to balance the scales. Callender offers a story that shines a glimmer of light in the darkness. With Moon, they chronicle a universal story about healing and self-love, regardless of how long, difficult, or seemingly small the steps are to reaching a more mentally healthy point. Callender also takes care to emphasize that the sadness doesn’t simply disappear. Moonflower is a book that provides young readers like Moon the validation and support to sit with their feelings while guiding them to a more hopeful space.
For anyone who has also wanted to leave this world: I’m so glad you’re still here.‘Moonflower’ dedication
Moonflower releases on September 6. Pre-order your copy here.