All the Impossible Things was a 4/5 star read for me. I am slightly conflicted in my overall opinion because I feel like it could easily have been a 5-star book and I find that fact bothersome when I look at the story as a whole.
11-year-old Ruby (Red) Byrd has been in foster care for the past few years since her grandmother died and her mother was arrested, convicted and jailed for drug possession. When we meet Red her caseworker is transferring her to another in a long line of foster placements. Red hates the fact that she has been forced into the foster system and is counting the days she has to survive until her mother is released from prison and she can be reunited with her.
She arrives at the home of Celine and Jackson Groove, an older couple who run a petting zoo. This placement feels different to Red. She is initially drawn to Celine in particular, but also to the rescued animals that make up the petting zoo. Used to feeling like an unwanted outsider, she is understandably afraid to acknowledge the hope that “fizzes” inside her during her first few days with the Grooves. Red finds herself torn between wanting her singular goal of the past several years (reuniting with her mother) and wondering if she could be happy with Celine and Jackson. This struggle and the way in which Red feels caught between loving her mother desperately, wanting to be with her and the reality of what her mother is able to provide physically and emotionally offer the reader a story with extraordinary depth.
Woven into Red’s storyline is the idea that she can control wind and that it is connected to her emotions. This bit of magical realism provides my biggest problem with the story and is the primary reason it was a 4 instead of a 5 star read for me.
Red’s character is absolutely genuine and well-developed. Her myriad of conflicting feelings perfectly capture the inner confusion and chaos of a child who has experienced loss and abandonment on the intense level that Red has. I definitely had an emotional response to Red’s struggles involving her opinion of herself and her desperate need to belong to someone.
The first half has some Charlotte’s Web vibes as Red connects with the animals at the Grooves’. This part of the story is a lot like sitting curled up with your dog (or cat, or…) and feeling the peace and connection that comes with their heartbeat and steady presence. It offers both Red and the reader moments of respite among the intense emotions that permeate Red’s life.
I deeply appreciate the fact that Red’s story does not resolve in a cookie-cutter happily-ever-after way. The way Red’s story plays out is not what she has always thought would be the ideal, and yet does not leave her life in tatters either. The resolution is satisfying for a middle grade reader, but acknowledges the reality that often things work out in ways we never expect. There can be joy with an unexpected development at the same time there can be sadness over the loss of what we expected. In this way it is reminiscent of one of my favorites: The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson.
I love the theme that repeats throughout the story that there is a difference between hard and impossible. Red’s Gamma has a saying which comes to permeate almost every aspect of Red’s life: “It always seems impossible…until it’s done.” Grappling with the idea that most things in life are not one thing or the other (i.e. “good” or “bad”), but a combination of many feelings and qualities is one of the most challenging aspects of growing up. All the Impossible Things does a remarkable job of creating space for the reader to experience some of that duality:
She wasn’t sad exactly, but she also wasn’t happy. It would come, she knew. Both the sadness and the happiness. Grief and joy. Like two separate tornadoes under the wings of her heart.
She needed them both to fly.
I have no objection to the inclusion of magical realism as long as it helps to anchor either a character struggle or a specific plot aspect. My problem with its inclusion in All the Impossible Things is that it wasn’t always clear from the text that it was, in fact, magical realism–as opposed to a strong metaphor for the feelings that often feel overwhelming to Red. The rest of Red’s story is so achingly genuine, so real that the idea of Red controlling the wind when she gets upset didn’t fit comfortably within its structure.
The only time Red’s magical ‘ability’ actually takes on an active role in the advancement of the plot it feels more like an interruption than a natural development. It almost seemed to me that the author felt obligated to use the magical realism aspect as a definite plot point somewhere in the story because she had introduced the idea to the readers, instead of as a result of the way the character and storyline naturally progressed.
I think personifying the wind or using it strictly as a metaphor for Red’s emotions (rather than as an actual magical phenomenon) would have been a much more effective approach. In this way it would still achieve the emotional impact on the reader while maintaining the remarkably realistic portrayal of Red’s circumstances and inner conflict.
TO RECOMMEND OR NOT TO RECOMMEND:
Yes, I would recommend All the Impossible Things for middle-grade readers. It was a quick and engaging read with vibrant characters and an important opportunity to think about (or acknowledge) the complexities in life and how to cope with them constructively.