WhistlePig Publishing

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By Allie Compeau

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Allie Compeau's ASTER AND THE SPIRIT TALKER is an environmentalist fairy tale that over-relies on genre tropes and yet still offers a cozy adventure for empathetic children.
In an ornate treehouse in her vast Ohio backyard, ten-year-old Aster Finlay befriends a chirping chickadee called Poe. The bird believes that Aster is the next Guiding Spirit, prophesied to restore balance between humans and animals. Will Aster let down the animals, or heal the world?

Allie Compeau’s ASTER AND THE SPIRIT TALKER is a fun, if familiar, romp through a fantasy world with talking animals that toes the line between an homage and a rip-off of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Aster tumbles through a hole in her tree house’s floorboards (very similar to Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole) and appears in an extraordinary world. Despite these cosmetic similarities, Compeau’s narrative stands out, though it occasionally becomes didactic about animal rights. Aster falls into the trope of the “Chosen One,” or the Guiding Spirit, in which her specialness is assumed rather than explained. Still, the narrative is effective at evoking what the suffering animals go through when humans disrupt their habitats.

In this vein, Aster’s journey centers around human society’s mistreatment of animals and the staggering body count that comes from viewing animals as an unintelligent, non-conscious second class. For example, Aster is furious when her grandparents suggest trapping and killing a nearby groundhog, who happens to be Aster’s best friend Hamilton. Parents should be aware of the portrayal of intense violence and grief. If a child Aster’s age is wrestling with these concepts in their own life, they may find solace; however, a child unfamiliar with the horrors of animal cruelty may be upset. Furthermore, the dynamic between humans and animals in the story mimics human oppression in real life, as a displaced group of intelligent animals requires liberation from the humans who enact violence upon them.

Aster is a likable, if bland, protagonist. She is tender, friendly, and a bit odd, like a Disney princess. After getting to know Poe and Hamilton, she tells Dad that she’s not worried about making friends, but “worried about making human friends.” Despite her familiar components, Aster is a good role model, especially for girls. She faces her fears and always tries to be brave, such as when the staircase to the animal world evokes her fear of heights. She is kind and loving to both animals and humans; when the movers discover that a lizard hitched a ride from Hawaii, Aster meets him, asks his name (Mo’o), and adopts him as a pet. Most importantly, Aster has empathy for the antagonists, including a mole named Mara who hates humans after having suffered terrible losses at their hands. Mara is a more nuanced antagonist, though she doesn’t appear on the page until more than halfway through the book.

Themes of environmentalism, animal rights, and anticapitalism come through in Aster’s appreciation for nature—as well as in Compeau’s luxurious descriptions of the treehouse, backyard, and animal world. The pacing is leisurely, as when Aster strolls through her backyard and admires the flowers. Young readers who are unfamiliar with the genre tropes will appreciate this fairy tale the most.

Allie Compeau’s ASTER AND THE SPIRIT TALKER is an environmentalist fairy tale that over-relies on genre tropes and yet still offers a cozy adventure for empathetic children.

~Leah Block for IndieReader

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