Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram; Dial Books for Young Readers, 312 pages ($17.99) Ages 12 and up.
This stunning, beautifully written debut novel, about a teenage boy's voyage of self-discovery while visiting relatives in Iran, offers a wonderful voice in Darius Kellner, son of a Persian mother and a white father.
Darius, who, like his dad, takes medication for clinical depression, is caught between two worlds. At school in Portland, Oregon, he's bullied over his name and his brown skin. Unlike his younger sister Laleh, he's unable to speak Farsi so video-calls with relatives in Iran are always halting and difficult. Darius takes pride in his work at the Tea Haven at the local mall and dreams of working at an artisanal tea store. ("As a people group, Persians are genetically predisposed to like tea. And even though I was only half Persian, I had inherited a full-strength tea-loving gene sequence from my mom".) He's also a Star Trek fan, an obsession he shares with his father in a bonding ritual devoid of the usual criticism about his hair and his weight. (He refers to his hyper-critical father in the narrative not as "Dad," but by his full name, as in "Stephen Kellner loves his Audi.")
When Darius learns the family is flying to Iran to visit his grandmother and his dying grandfather, Darius is pretty certain he will feel even more out of place. But then he meets a neighbor boy named Sohrab and finds his first real friend. They play soccer, they spend hours talking, they eat faludeh (a semi-frozen dessert of thin noodles in rose-water syrup). A bullying incident results in an unfortunate nickname, a falling out with Sohrab, an apology and forgiveness.
Khorram offers a fascinatingly detailed portrait of modern-day Iran, its cultural traditions, its religious diversity (Darius' family is Zoroastrian; Sohrab's is Baha'i) , its architectural marvels, its oppressive heat, its family celebrations along with mouthwatering descriptions of Iranian food (sekanjabin, fresh romaine leaves dipped in mint syrup, and qottab, deep-fried almond pastries). The novel offers a thoughtful treatment of an adolescent's struggle with mental illness: Darius has come to terms with his need for medication, and over the course of the novel he comes to a new awareness that the estrangement he feels from his father has grown from his father's own experience of depression. Most of all, Khorram offers a sweet portrait of a developing friendship that stops just short of romance, what the publisher's notes call a "pre-coming out" story.
This thrilling fantasy, first of a trilogy, comes from the Irish author of several novels for young people including "Into the Grey" which won the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year.
Kiernan writes with a beautiful lyricism, her narrative humming along like music: "The moon was strange the night the witches came and Aunty died. The colour of brass and huge, it seemed to fill the sky." Young Mup is riding home from the hospital in the car with her Mum and her baby brother Tipper when Mup rouses from sleep and a dream of custard to see "the trees were falling away and away as the car sped by, and there were witches in the branches, and they were following the car."
Mup has no idea about her mother's magical past, but when the witches kidnap her father, Mup, her mother, her baby brother Tipper (who takes the form of a dog), and the family dog, Badger, all cross the border into the witches' realm to rescue him. Kiernan, dubbed "Ireland's answer to J.K. Rowling" by The Independent, conjures up a complex and thrilling world of a magic just beyond the known reality, a place where a boy might be transformed into a crow, where a girl can climb the tallest tree and race through branches high above the ground, a place ruled by a witch queen who shows no mercy. Mup is a brave and resourceful heroine (as a counter to the black garb of the witches, Mup decides to dress in colors - a scarlet dress, a pink tutu with spangles, a red jacket an orange hat), and readers will eagerly await the next installment.