Hello, and thanks for joining us at Tundra Telegram, the column where we dig into the burning topics floating in the ether and recommend some books to dive into and set your synapses ablaze.
This Friday (June 16), Disney and Pixar release the animated film Elemental in theatres, a movie set in a world inhabited by anthropomorphic versions of the four classical elements (fire, water, air, earth). The romantic story follows a fire element (Ember) and water (Wade), who meet and fall in love and attempt to make their relationship work, against the odds and their society’s preconceived notions.
People are excited to visit Element City and mix it up with the characters. Accordingly, we’re recommending three books for each classical element in each age category. So, no matter if you’re a down-to-earth reader or your flair is for air, we’ve got some elemental reads for you!
Looking for books about air? We’ve got a few books that will have you on Cloud 9, starting with Elbert in the Air by Monica Wesolowska and Jerome Pumphrey, a picture book about a boy who begins to float shortly after birth. Shortly after he is born, Elbert floats up into the air, making life a little tricky for him and his mother. Everyone in town has some homespun advice for keeping her boy down on the ground, but Elbert’s mother knows her son is meant to float.
Elly MacKay’s In the Clouds is another wonderful book for young skywatchers and cloud stans. A dreamy book that takes place mostly in the stratosphere, if features a bored and curious little girl whisked off by a friendly bird to an adventure in the sky, where she can contemplate questions about the sky: how do clouds float? Or carry the rain? Where do they go when they disappear?
For a picture book that speaks more to the power of air, there’s Jeremy Worried about the Wind by Pamela Butchart and Kate Hindley. Anxious Jeremy learns his worries are well-founded when it comes to the wind: on a very windy day, he’s literally blown right out of his shoes and up into the sky. What follows is a madcap adventure, powered by the element of air, that makes Jeremy realize the things he worries about could be incredible experiences in disguise.
Maybe you’re looking for books that take a plunge into water? Dip your toes into the subject with Benjamin Flouw’s Constellation of the Deep, in which a daring fox dons scuba gear and embarks on an underwater quest for an elusive, bioluminescent plant that reportedly grows at the bottom of the ocean.
If you’re ready to fully dive into the element, The Aquanaut by Jill Heinerth and Jaime Kim is ideal. Written by an actual underwater explorer and photographer (who is in the Women Divers Hall of Fame!), this is an inspiring picture book that encourages readers to explore their world, build their self-esteem and imagine what they can do and become when they grow up. This a book about chasing your dreams, especially when those dreams involve immersing yourself in water.
And David A. Robertson and Maya McKibbin’s The Song That Called Them Home is a fantastical adventure inspired by Cree legends, in which a canoe trip in the lake goes horribly wrong and, after being thrown overboard, Lauren’s little brother, James, is taken underwater by mischievous creatures called the Memekwesewak. Lauren must journey into the watery depths to retrieve him.
What about some picture books that are on fire?Any reader of Dragons Love Tacos, the hit picture book by Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri, knows that once spicy salsa – which dragons do not like – enters the picture, a conflagration is sure to follow. Accordingly, spicy salsa is one element that dragons do not want at their taco bar.
The flames in Logan S. Kline’s Finding Fire are considerably less destructive. A prehistoric young boy hunts for fire to bring his family warmth, and will face multiple challenges and dangers – and maybe make one woolly friend – in his attempt to bring the fire home.
While the 2023 Caldecott winner Hot Dog by Doug Salati may not feature much in the way of actual fire, the book is hotter than a short order cook’s grill. Depicting one dog and his sweltering travails in a New York City heatwave, the book is enough to make any young readers sweat.
And for some picture books that are the salt of the earth: Two friends tunnel deep into the element in Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. Experience the joys of earth and soil as Sam and Dave endeavor to find something spectacular under the ground in this deadpan story.
Marianna Coppo’s Petra, on the other hand, features a character who is made of earth herself. Petra is a little rock with an irresistibly flexible self-perception – no matter what her situation, she knows she belongs – that goes to show not even earth is set in stone.
And if you’re a young reader who wants to know what’s really going under the soil, there’s Under Your Feet … Soil, Sand and Everything Underground by Wenjia Tang, a book that excavates all the information you want about the materials under your feet and the miraculous creatures that live there.
CHAPTER BOOKS & MIDDLE GRADE
A fast-paced fantasy adventure that spotlights the magical powers of air, Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of the Wind by Misa Sugiura features a Momo, an ordinary twelve-year-old who discovers her mother is a banished Shinto goddess who used to protect a long-forgotten passageway to the land of the dead. Momo will have to unlock her divine powers and team up with her former best friend and talking fox to protect that passageway from evil spirits. Plus, there is a weapon made of wind, which is why it’s on the list here.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Young Readers Edition) by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer is a book that similarly showcases the power of air (though in a less stabby way). Based on the true story of how a young inventor (and the book’s co-author) brought electricity to his Malawian village, the story demonstrates how a windmill of scrap metal could generate electricity to pump the water needed in the village – all thanks to air.
The comics anthology Flight Volume One, edited by Kazu Kibuishi and featuring work from Derek Kirk Kim, Dylan Meconis and Hope Larson, among others, shies away from the power of air to instead highlight its majesty and wonder. Featuring dozens of short stories that circle around the topic of flight, with kites, airships, birds and more, it’s all about what takes place up in the air.
Is there such a thing as too much water? Rafe, the protagonist of Water, Water by Cary Fagan and Jon McNaught, would certainly think so. In this surreal adventure, Rafe wakes up one morning to discover his bedroom is floating in a vast sea of water. Alone with only his dog by his side, Rafe adapts to this watery new world by fishing cans of food out of the water and keeping an eye on the waves.
A futuristic underwater adventure worthy of Jules Verne, Rick Riordan’s Daughter of the Deep is set at an academy for the best marine scientists, naval warriors, navigators, and underwater explorers in the world. Freshman Ana Dakkar is on her class’s weekend trial at sea, when her class is attacked by a rival land school and the uneasy peace between land and sea is shattered forever.
A love letter to lake communities, Hello from Renn Lake by Michele Weber Hurwitz takes place in a Wisconsin town, where Annalise’s family has run lakeside cabins for generations. Annalise herself feels a real connection to the lake (and even speaks to it) – that is, until the lake becomes polluted by harmful algae. This is a book about water conservation, and – even better – there are sections written from the perspective of the lake itself!
Fire of the volcanic kind comes to play in Lei and the Fire Goddess by Malia Maunakea, a fantasy adventure based on Hawaiian legend and mythology. The book stars twelve-year-old Anna Leilani Kamaʻehu, who doesn’t think curses and magic are real until she accidentally insults Pele the fire goddess by destroying her lehua blossom on a return visit to Hawaii. (Whoops.)
No curses necessary, only poorly maintained ecosystems for fire disaster to strike in Iain Lawrence’s Fire on Headless Mountain. Virgil and his older siblings are on a mission to scatter their mother’s ashes (another fire reference) at her favorite mountain lake when a forest fire breaks out. Separated from his brother and sister, Virgil must remember the lessons of his science teacher mother to survive the sudden inferno.
And tween detectives Asim and Rokshar have a few close encounters of the fiery kind in Spooky Sleuths: Fire in the Sky by Natasha Deen and Lissy Marlin. When their friend Max finds himself in danger, Asim and Rokshar are attacked by fireballs. Is science … or a witch from Guyanese folklore … behind the flying fire?
You can’t talk children’s books and earth without mentioning Louis Sachar’s modern classic Holes. At a boys’ detention center, Camp Green Lake, Stanley Yelnats and his fellow detainees spend all day, every day digging holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. Soon Stanley realizes this isn’t just a punishment – the warden is looking for something under the dry earth. But what?
Continuing the tradition of books about underground tunnels, The Lifters by Dave Eggers, tells the story of two kids who discover the ground beneath their feet is not made of solid earth and stone but has been hollowed into hundreds of tunnels and passageways, created by mysterious forces for enigmatic reasons.
Set in a post-apocalyptic underground city, The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, is an under-earth adventure without parallel. A last refuge for the human race, Ember is teetering on the edge of doom, its lamps flickering and threatening to extinguish forever. Only young Lina and her friend Doon can figure out the clues to save this city under the soil.
The air is a battlefield in Stateless by Elizabeth Wein. Teen pilot Stella North enters an air race across Europe in 1937, billed as “Circuit of Nations Olympics of the Air.” When she sees a plane deliberately knocked out of the sky by a fellow pilot, she must unwind the baffling mystery in the tense pre-war climate of the time.
The skies are also the site of terror in Flight 171 by Amy Christine Parker, though for entirely different reasons. In this case, a four-hour flight takes a turn for the horrific when a supernatural creature highjacks the plane and gives the senior class ski trip a deadly ultimatum: sacrifice one of them to die before the flight ends, or the entire plane will crash. (And you thought flying Sunwing was unpleasant!)
Science fiction makes us think of space (where there famously is no air), but Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward is a science-fiction epic about aerial dogfights on an alien world. Spensa, a teenager who is one of a group of shipwrecked humans living on a ruined world under constant attack from mysterious aliens called the Krell. Spensa is determined to become a pilot, one of the brave few who can protect her people from the Krell, but she has the reputation of her father – a pilot who deserted his team and was killed – to overcome.
When you’re talking YA and water, you know there will be piracy in the mix. And that’s the case with The Wicked Bargain by Gabe Cole Novoa, a Latinx pirate fantasy starring a transmasc nonbinary teen with a mission of revenge and revolution – as well as the power to manipulate fire and ice (which is technically water). Add in a bargain with the Devil, an arrogant and handsome pirate, and a gender-fluid demon with opaque motives and you’ve got yourself a thrill ride wetter and wilder than Pirates of the Caribbean.
Those We Drown by Amy Goldsmith (out June 27) is an ocean-drenched, atmospheric horror novel about a high school semester-at-sea program – or “Seamester” – that turns into a dread-filled voyage with disappearing classmates and strange creatures that haunt the students’ dreams. Imagine Breaker High rewritten by H. P. Lovecraft and you know this is a book that plunges into darker waters than usual.
And In the Serpent’s Wake by Rachel Hartman was – at one point – called Tess of the Sea, to note its aquatic bona fides. A follow-up to Tess of the Road, it sees Tess on a mission from the Queen to sail across the oceans to the bottom of the world and prevent a war, though she may take a few sea-faring diversions on the way there.
Fire meets thriller in Jennifer Lynn Alvarez’s Lies Like Wildfire, a book that features five friends who accidentally spark an enormous and deadly wildfire and – as the title suggests – lie about doing so. But as the blaze roars through their town and towards Yosemite National Park, Hannah, who is the daughter of the sheriff, feels her friends begin to crack and finds herself going to extreme lengths to protect their secret.
Another novel set into motion by wildfires, Up in Flames by Hailey Alcaraz, finds a wealthy and entitled teen, Ruby Ortega, whose life is turned upside down by wildfires that devastate her California hometown (and her parents’ business). Ruby must rebuild her life with the help of unexpected allies – including a beguiling, dark-eyed boy (naturally) – and become an unexpected heroine to the many people displaced by the fire.
The fires may be wild in Burn Our Bodies Down by Rory Power, but they are anything but natural. After all, it’s a massive fire in a cornfield in her mother’s hometown from which Margot pulls a girl who looks exactly like her. And things only get stranger after those fires.
Earth is at the heart of Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak, an epic, multi-layered story of five brothers who – with a dead mother and absent father – raise each other, which not only features a main character named Clay, but also has that Clay build a bridge (also out of clay … or at least some form of earth) at the request of their suddenly returned father.
The novel Dig by A. S. King is a strange fever dream of a story that looks at racism, patriarchy, colonialism, toxic masculinity, and the systems that keep them all going, but it does so through five estranged cousins whose grandparents created a fortune potato farming (!) – a fortune they will not pass along to their grandchildren. In addition to the earth the potatoes are buried in, soil metaphors abound, looking at the darkness that finds root under white suburban respectability, and how one generation might be able to dig a way out to the light.
Finally, in less metaphoric matters, The Wrath & the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh is the first of a fantasy series with plenty of sand. Set in a desert kingdom, this reimagining of 1001 Nights sees Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, take a new bride each night only to have her executed at sunrise. When sixteen-year-old Shahrzad volunteers to marry Khalid, she has a plan to stay alive and get revenge for her best friend. But she discovers that the murderous boy-king is not what he seems and there is more to the deaths of so many girls. Also, she may be falling in love? (Time for Plan B!)