Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Review by Logaine Navascués

Scholastic Press, March 2020

256 pages, hardcover, $24.99 CAD, 978-1-338-15786-4

Ages 8–12, Grades 3–7 

Young Adult,  Action/Adventure, Contemporary Realism, Fantasy, Mystery

“We all face something in life that is a mystery, where no matter which way we look, there is no satisfying answer.” Buelo shrugged. “But such is the challenge of life. Your story reminds us of that.”

Max doesn’t feel like a regular 11-year-old boy in his hometown of Santa María. His dad won’t let him join the other kids for fútbol practice in a nearby town—even though making it to the local team is Max’s greatest dream—because he’s worried something might happen to him. That he will also disappear, just as his Mother did when he was still a baby. Papá has been quite overprotective ever since, and is not willing to talk about it.

Luckily, there’s also Buelo to take care of him and talk to. All these years, grandpa has been telling him stories about hidden bridges, secret gatekeepers, and travelers who are true of heart. He has also shared the history, now turned into legend, of Los Guardines de los Escondidos—The Guardians of the Hidden Ones—a network of villagers who helped people from the neighbouring country of Abismo escape a dictator in their search for a better tomorrow: for Mañanaland, a place that exists wherever there is hope, as Max will come to realize. What he doesn’t know is that Buelo’s tales will be quite useful once he embarks on an unexpected adventure that will connect his sheltered past to his present, transforming all he knew about his family, his Mom’s mysterious disappearance, and himself.

Author Pam Muñoz Ryan’s lyrical yet simple prose captures the essence of magical realism, weaving together myth and fact in a tale about an imaginary country that reflects the real-life, current events of millions of people who are forced to flee their homes because of violence, corruption, and modern-day slavery. Through Max’s still innocent and tender voice, she is able to address these difficult topics from an intimate, child-like perspective, making the complex seem more attainable; giving a name, a face, and a personal story to the millions of anonymous victims of the refugee crisis. 

Despite this darker content however, the tale is full of optimism and hope, depicting the dreams and aspirations of any 11-year-old who is trying to define who they are. The short chapters and fast-paced narrative do a great job in moving the story forward, creating an action-packed adventure, while the evocative language and similes enhance the poetic and symbolic nature of the reading.

The inclusion of words in Spanish feels organic to the text, adding a layer of credibility to the story and to Max’s character. There’s plenty of little details—like his eagerness to get a pair of expensive Volante sneakers, or the power dynamics between his friends—that paint him as a real boy with common, day-to-day worries, but who is also part of a larger world that he slowly becomes more aware of. This is, I think, the book’s greatest gift: revealing the gradual process through which a child, at any age or moment, can start feeling so much for others so as to put their needs before their own. Empathy and compassion are at the center of this heartwarming story about finding the courage to live one’s own life and search for happiness, even in difficult times. Listed in the New York Times’ Best Children’s Books of 2020, this is a captivating, fun read for younger audiences, and a valuable, inspiring experience for readers of all ages.

Logaine Navascués is a Peruvian artist, writer, creative director, teacher and book maker, currently living in Vancouver. She is the proud mother of a beautiful daughter and two artist books. You can find her reading, collecting picture books and eating chocolate while pursuing her MA in Children’s Literature at UBC.

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