“Tell me what’s happened!” cried Mona.
“Grandma Gooseberry, we don’t understand,” said Strawberry.
“You didn’t hear it from the hummingbird? You didn’t feel the wind?” Grandma Gooseberry clutched her bit of lace. “That hummingbird said the news was bad, and indeed it was. Very bad. The worst.”
Grandma Gooseberry took a deep breath—and Mona did too.
“The wind has shifted the fire. It’s passed Pebbly Patch. It’s headed for the Heartwood.” (From Home Again.)
The third and fourth installments in the “Heartwood Hotel” chapter book series continue the charming story of Mona the mouse and her various animal friends who run a hotel in a hollow tree. In Better Together, Mr. Heartwood goes on vacation and the rest of the staff try to put on the Spring Splash without him. Amid the chaos, Tilly the squirrel’s little brother Henry arrives to stay with her, and Mona is jealous of all the attention he gets. Competition in various forms threatens the peace of the hotel, but when owls come hunting, everyone works together to keep the hotel safe.
Home Again brings a guest to the hotel who may have answers about Mona’s family. But before Mona can learn the truth, a forest fire forces everyone to evacuate. Mona ends up at the Inn Between hotel for mice, built in between the floors of a human house. She is welcomed, and she thinks she may have found her aunt, but when she hears that Mr. Heartwood stayed behind with his hotel, she runs back to the forest to save him. Mona realizes that her new friends are her family, and that, even if the hotel burns down, they haven’t lost their home if they are still together.
Although it isn’t necessary to read the first two books before reading this pair, Mona continues to develop as a character. She is more confident in her place in the hotel and in her friendship with Tilly. Dealing with Henry helps her learn patience and empathy. Young readers will find it easy to sympathize with Mona’s frustration when Henry keeps making mistakes and getting in the way, but everyone seems to think he’s wonderful.
Hilarious troubles with the guests competing in the Spring Fling, combined with tense but not overly scary danger, make Better Together an entertaining page-turner. Home Again has a slightly more serious feel as Mona learns more about her parents who died as everyone’s home and life are put in danger by the fire. But there are still plenty of cute, humorous episodes, and the ending is reassuring and heartwarming.
The appeal of the “Heartwood Hotel” books owes much to the engaging setting, with humourous details like a porcupine bride shredding her wedding dress, an upside-down room for bats, and a cutest egg competition. The hotel and forest are populated with quirky, fun characters, from Skim, the speed-reading snail, to Captain Ruby and her squadron of bees, who are not impressed with the artistic flying of Florian the firefly and his troupe, the Fernwood Flares.
Although the side characters are generally played for laughs and general mayhem, the main characters are empathetic and well-rounded individuals with relatable problems. Mona develops over the course of the four books from a frightened, lonely orphan to a brave, kind protector of her adopted family. Young readers will understand her worries and insecurities and will root for her courageous and clever problem-solving.
The pencil sketches liberally peppered throughout the books perfectly capture the gentle humour and loveably cute characters. The books’ matching covers will make these very attractive additions to a shelf and will appeal greatly to the target audience.
Kim Aippersbach is a writer, editor and mother of three living in Vancouver, British Columbia.