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  • Writer's pictureNora Curry

Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea

If you find her, beware.

If you find her, be keen.

She'll sing you into madness

or grant you one dream.

Secrets she knows,

sorrow she sees,

alone under the waves,

our Rosemary Lee.

If spending the summer nestling into Sea Rose Cottage in Rose Harbor, Maine—the smell of sea roses in the air and that deep, blue sea almost within reach from the porch—sounds idyllic, well... it's a little more complicated for twelve-year-old Hazel Bly. In this story by middle grade author Ashley Herring Blake, Rose Harbor is Hazel's eighth home with her Mama and little sister, Peach, in two years, as her grieving mother uproots the family time and again after Hazel's other mother dies in a kayaking accident. Hazel (ridden by guilt, suffering from panic attacks, and toting a Safety Pack to tackle all the possible terrible mishaps that could occur out there in the world) is desperate not to take root but instead return to the family house in Berkeley, California.

Rose Harbor and its residents—both real and mythical—have other things in mind, though. When Mama reignites a past romance with her first love, Hazel finds herself forced into a friendship with the irrepressible Lemon (who Peach is more than happy to embrace as her new "fruit friend") and navigating entirely new feelings of attraction for Lemon's nonbinary best friend Jules. Hazel resists both the pull of friendship and of the ocean she once loved before her Mum's accident as she struggles to understand why her Mama has seemed to closet away all memories of their old life together. Lemon and her friends are ardent believers in the myth of the Rose Maid, a young girl who lost her family in a boating accident centuries ago and disappeared into the sea, now believed by many in Rose Harbor to be a mermaid haunting the waters. It just so happens that Hazel bears an uncanny resemblance to the Rosemary Lee of so long ago, but crippled by anxiety and grief, she's not quite ready to sport "The Rose Maid lives" t-shirts with Lemon and pals, no matter how many times Jules makes her grin and blush. The narrative follows the push and pull of Hazel's attempts both to heal and move forward and to seek shelter in the past, and she feels the lure of the Rose Maid, the ocean, and the joy, security, and sense of space that can come with friendship and connection.

I want to sink onto the couch, right in the little corner where one section meets the other. I want to curl under that fleece blanket, read whatever book is lying there, pull Peach close to me while surrounded by all the stuff that makes a place ours, all the little things that make it a home.... The sting in my chest is almost unbearable. But instead of wanting to run to Mama, demand that she take us back to Berkeley, back home, I just want to be here. Lemon's home. At least for tonight. A place where someone she lost still feels close, still feels treasured.

So many great middle great novels take place in our beloved little state of Maine, and Blake has added a memorable addition to the mix with Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea. Hazel's struggles with grief and anxiety may be relatable for many young (and old) readers. When a loved one dies, or some other loss is experienced, it's tempting to want an old life back and perhaps to expect everyone to react in the same way. Hazel has a hard time understanding her Mama's coping mechanisms, and readers get a glimpse, too, into how complicated it is to be a parent in the face of this level of loss. For all the heaviness, though, Lemon and her friends bring in joy, humor, and teal mermaid glitter, and Hazel begins her attempts to find peace, calm, and redefine what it means to call a place home. Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea is a story about many things, not least of which is how we find ourselves within stories, like the Rose Maid myth, but also how we make our own. And how we don't always have to do it alone.

This middle grade novel may be a welcome story for those who enjoy realistic fiction with a slight aura of magic, as well as for those navigating grief, exploring their identities, or just looking for a beautifully written book, the kind that absorbs you straight into the small world created by the author. Hazel Bly may be contained within two covers, but its reach is pretty far—expansive like the deep blue sea.

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