Review: “Moonflower” by Kacen Callender

MOONFLOWER, by Kacen Callender

Kacen Callender is a special kind of writer. The kind of writer who pairs careful craft with unbridled creativity. The kind of writer who pushes narrative boundaries. Which makes their latest novel, “Moonflower,” fresh, exciting and hard to pin down.

In it, a child named Moon, struggling with depression, learns to visit the spirit realm through astral projection, discusses the meaning of life with spirits and stars, nearly destroys the realm by trusting the wrong being, and ultimately learns to fight for their rights and love themself. It’s part Pixar’s “Soul” (minus the talking cat and corporate analogies), part Socratic dialogue and part something new entirely.

At times, it’s a glittering fever dream. Moon wanders through a shape-shifting city and traverses the universe to watch dying stars birth new souls.

At one point they find the land of the living (our world) to be underwater, though neither their mother nor passers-by seem to notice.

Other times, the book is pure philosophy.

In one chapter, a star says, “The purpose of life is to reconnect with what you have lost … to find your way back to your soul’s original path on your earth, which brings you such peace and joy.”

In another, a tree called Joy asks: “Do you know what shame is? … When you are ashamed, it isn’t because of something you’ve done. It’s because you are ashamed of your own life. Your own existence. You want to apologize for living.”

Heavy stuff. Heady stuff. Callender, who won the 2020 National Book Award for “King and the Dragonflies,” refuses to talk down to their audience.

Moon’s depression is severe and, steeped as they are in sorrow and hopelessness, being in their head can feel almost claustrophobic. But that’s the point.

We experience those emotions alongside Moon. In return, we heal alongside Moon, too.

That healing is the crux of this novel.

In little over a decade, the number of adolescents who’ve reported a major depressive episode has risen by 60 percent, bringing it to more than one in 10. “Moonflower” addresses childhood depression without flinching, contributing to a small but growing space in children’s literature. (Bree Barton’s “Zia Erases the World” and Christine Day’s “The Sea in Winter” are also great examples.)

Callender is unflinching, too, in how they write about the intersection of Moon’s mental health and racial and gender identity. Moon appreciates that adults try to shield kids from reality, but argues that “there isn’t any point in hiding from the truth when I see it everywhere. Black people like me, arrested and killed because of the color of their skin. Transgender and nonbinary people, told that we don’t exist, and don’t deserve the same rights as everyone else.”

The book is honest, at times brutally so, for good reason. If kids can’t explore hard truths in books, where can they explore them?

And crucially, this story provides a safe place for that exploration. Many of the spirits are nonbinary — not just the trees and the stars but some spirits that take human forms as well.

As Callender expands the boundaries of what narrative can do, they also expand the boundaries of who we can be, reminding us that the limitations of society mean little in the face of an unlimited universe.

“Moonflower” recognizes readers’ pain and ultimately leads them, with a gentle and steady hand, toward hope and the power of loving themselves — because they exist, because they are worthy.

Tae Keller, who won the 2021 Newbery Medal for “When You Trap a Tiger,” is the author, most recently, of “Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone.”

MOONFLOWER, by Kacen Callender | 272 pp. | Scholastic | $17.99 | Ages 8 to 12