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Reviewed by Carmen Tenorio for Readers' Favorite
Set during a small family reunion on Thanksgiving Day, Heart of the Forest: Cousin Friendship Series #1 by Hermione Lee is about the unexpected magical adventure of two competitive cousins. Our protagonists are 12-year-old Ilyria and 14-year-old Jerry obliged by their parents to spend some quality time together even if they find each other unbearable. They must rely on one another if they are to survive a quest in response to a mysterious voice that beckoned them to enter the enchanted forest next to Ilyria's home. Taking place partly in the real world and largely in another magical dimension, they face not only dangerous and perilous situations but also wonderfully beautiful and fantastic places, creatures, and characters while searching for the voice that summoned them at the start. Along with their goal, Ilyria and Jerry ultimately realize they must let go of their prejudices and discover more about one another and themselves if they have any chance of successfully overcoming the challenges they encounter.
Heart of the Forest by Hermione Lee is a page-turner, and there never is a dull moment in the book. It is a coming-of-age third-person narrative that explores themes such as independence, self-confidence, courage, camaraderie, the synergy of friendship and cooperation and even overcoming stereotypes and biases. It is also very much a rebuttal of the pressure to conform and perform that young people face from their school, their peers, and their very own families. The book also contains insights and lessons relevant to the struggles of growing up and everyday relationships. The enchanted forest represents the innocence that gets lost as we deal with the real world and grow up to achieve highly valued roles in society. This becomes the flaw of the unmagical mind that has left behind its sense of wonder, creativity, and belief in magic. Lee's skill in conjuring up descriptively magical and thrilling scenarios that combine both modern and traditional subject matter makes the book an entertaining read. I strongly recommend it to upper middle-graders and young adult readers not only because "magic is awesome" as the author puts it, but I believe that her inventiveness and wild fantasies will not only tickle the imagination of the reader but also encourage the joy of reading in curious young minds.