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Scarlet Oak
Tree sprite Scarlet Oak exists as an outlier in her forested community. Wingless since early youth, she longs for a more profound life. Then, one autumn night in 1977, an autistic boy hangs himself from her tree. Heartbroken, Scarlet bargains with Smis, Southern Maryland’s Grim Reaper, for one cycle of seasons to find proof that that boy’s spirit belongs to the Light, not the Dark. Scarlet morphs into human form and is accepted into the boy’s grieving family on an isolated farm, during which time she engages in a series of soul-altering events that challenge her beliefs about life, love, death, and connection.
Weiland-Crosby weaves a moving tapestry of grief, family, and the enduring power of nature in her fanciful debut. Scarlet, a tree sprite, has seen a lot in her fifty years on earth, but she has never met a human until she encounters Finn, an autistic human teenager, seconds before taking his own life. That moment changes everything for both, in ways neither could expect. In their part of the world, the Smis (short for “Southern Maryland in Shadow”) judges all living things when they die, determining whether each soul moves toward the Light or the Dark. Death by suicide, in the Smis’s estimation, means automatic Darkness. But Scarlet is convinced that Finn did not intend to die and begs for a chance to prove it. She is given one year to pretend to be human and prove that Finn’s spirit belongs to the Light.

Audiences will be swept away by Scarlet’s human life as Willow Brook, who learns that fifty years of tree-sprite living have ill-prepared her for love, jealousy, and heartbreak. Her relationship with Finn’s grieving parents will keep readers guessing as to Scarlet and Finn’s fate—expect tears along the way. Weiland-Crosby’s narrative features multiple perspectives, including its eponymous protagonist, Smis, and Scarlet’s tree host, Horace, offering a multifaceted view of characters and scenes. The lyrical style is touched with poetry, providing insight into the world between fairy and human.

At times, that divide seems arbitrary: The afterlife in Scarlet Oak is clearly non-religious, but Christianity and the Christmas holiday are major forces for good in the life of Scarlett and the Smis. The story grapples with mature subject matter—suicide, alcoholism, ableism—but readers should be aware that the depiction of Finn’s autism emphasizes negative effects on those around him. Despite some uncomfortable moments, this rich fusion of connection and resilience will remind readers of their own magic.

Takeaway: Part paean to nature, part family drama, this lyric fantasy examines grief and love in our world.

Great for fans of: Glendy Vanderah’s Where the Forest Meets the Stars, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: A-
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: B