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Quintessence by Jess Redman – Book Review

Title: Quintessence

Author: Jess Redman

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)

Release Date: July 28, 2020

Thank you to Netgalley and publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), for an eARC of this book!

RATING: 3.5 STARS

Alma suffers from panic attacks. Her suffering is solitary, isolating, and, at times, debilitating. She tries to keep her episodes a secret from her family, but they continue to get worse as Alma struggles to “acclimate” to her new home in Four Points. But the shopkeeper of the mysterious Fifth Point has bigger plans for Alma. A seemingly chance encounter between the two sets Alma on a fantastical quest. With the help of new friends and an emerging sense of self, Alma races against time to do the impossible: find the elements, grow the light, and save the starling.

The beauty of Quintessence lies in its raw, unfiltered depiction of a young person suffering from anxiety. Author Jess Redman captures Alma’s struggles in a visceral way, leveling a stirring emotional punch. The story’s emotion propels the plot and will keep readers engaged with the fantastical tale. While Alma and her friends’ quest is fun and purposeful, it takes place in a semi-real, semi-magical place. This setting creates dissonance at times although Redman’s incorporation of the Shopkeeper added much needed explanation for the impetus of the quest. Readers would benefit from his perspective much earlier. The tale truly finds its footing and rhythm about halfway through its telling, a length of time that may lose some readers as they turn disinterested in Alma’s transformation. This would be a shame because by the end of the novel, the story Redman brings to life proves powerful and compelling – so much so, readers may hope the tale of the Elementals continues in subsequent novels.

Quintessence imparts important messages to its readers: we are unique, we are interconnected, and we are resilient. These messages will resonate with middle grade readers and even bolster their own confidence to face the challenges in front of them. Its references to and emphasis on astronomy and science will surely attract the attention of STEM and STEAM-loving students. Most importantly, though, Quintessence provides young people a compassionate portrayal of Alma’s struggle with anxiety. With the need for social-emotional learning and mental health education rightly at the forefront of education, Redman’s novel can serve as a vehicle to open up conversations about these critical topics.

Classroom Applications

  • Cross-curricular Study – Teach the novel in conjunction with a nonfiction study of astronomy.
  • Literature Circles – Use novel for small groups or choice reading with a variety of books that involve a quest.
  • Book Club or Book Exchange – Share the novel with students that enjoy reading novels that are about quests.

Nonfiction Connections: The list below outlines topics that will enrich your students’ understanding of the novel.

  • Astronomy
  • Star Formation
  • Principles of Astrophysics

Book Companions: The following are great books to pair with Quintessence. In parenthesis are the specific aspects students could explore when synthesizing across the texts.

  • Hello, Universe by Erin Kelly Entrada (Character Connections, Themes, Nonfiction Connections)
  • Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk (Character Connections, Themes)
  • What Stars Are Made Of by Sarah Allen (Character Connections, Themes)

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