In a note included with advance copies of Gillian McDunn’s fifth novel, the middle grade author shares that When Sea Becomes Sky is her “once-in-a-lifetime-book.” It is an undeniably beautiful story made for pondering and revisiting, and a tale that readers will surely treasure.
It’s been almost a year since rain fell on Pelican Island, a lovely place amid the coastal Carolina salt marshes where 11-year-old Bex and 9-year-old Davey live with their parents. In the summertime, Mom, a biology teacher, kayaks around collecting samples and specimens; Dad pilots a ferryboat and writes poetry; and Bex, Davey, and Davey’s cat, Squish, row out to the Thumb, their favorite spot on the island. The isolated, peaceful area contains a huge old live oak tree in which Squish lounges, Davey reads and Bex valiantly tries to conquer her writer’s block.
But then, as Bex and Davey are enjoying their “just-us kind of summer,” two strange things appear. First, they find an orange X painted on their tree, a harbinger of a bridge-development project that will bring more tourism to the island while destroying so much of what the siblings hold dear. The second surprise might offer a solution: As the drought drags on, a statue slowly emerges from the marshy water at the Thumb, and Bex and Davey think they might be able to use it to stop the development project.
Bex convinces Davey to keep the statue a secret so they can figure out its origin without the interference of grown-ups, but they’ll have to hurry. The developers will break ground soon, and it’s going to be really hard for Bex and Davey to keep their investigation hidden from their parents and island neighbors for long.
McDunn creates delicious and often funny tension as Bex and Davey sneak around in search of answers and discover even more questions. Readers will be intrigued and moved as they join the inseparable pair in their musings: If something is fleeting, does that make it less meaningful? What does it mean to endure? What does moving on look like, and is it different from leaving something—or someone—behind?
Illustrations by Yaoyao Ma Van As heighten the sense of place, and readers will practically smell the island’s salty air as they’re reminded of the importance of conservation and stewardship. When Sea Becomes Sky is an emotional, realistic chronicle of a special summer that considers big questions and appreciates quiet moments with mastery, compassion and care.