The precipitating event in the very beginning of both Kage Baker’s Hotel Under the Sand and Lili St. Crow’s Strange Angels is the heroine losing their parent (s).

They both become orphans suddenly and tragically. And the rest of the book chronicles how they overcome obstacles with the help of friends who then become their “family.”

And yet could two books be more different?

Hotel Under the Sand is one I could be fine giving to girl1 to read right now (she’s about to start second grade). Strange Angels I’d probably wait a few more years.

In Hotel Under the Sand, the heroine loses everything in a big storm, wakes up in a mysterious sand due, meets a friendly ghost, a friendly pirate, a bratty but friendly boy, and they all put a magical hotel back together and work through eachother’s issues to become a big, happy family.

The subjects of the heroine’s loss, the probably villainry of the pirate, and the greediness of the boy’s guardian are not ignored, but they are touched on lightly, with a smug grin, as if these bad things happen but don’t we all know that things will work out for the best when we try hard enough to be good.

The pirate, instead of looting the hotel as was his obvious intention, ends up helping them instead, and all just under mysterious social pressure to maintain an honest facade for the heroine. The heroine herself shies away from thinking about the loss of her family and whole world, whole-heartedly throwing herself into the new life she is making.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the book very much and hope I can interest girl1 in it. The characters are great and I am sure the friendly ghost and the friendly pirate are powerful in their appeal to children, but it is a book for an audience that lacks firsthand knowledge with tragedy, I think.

Strange Angels, on the other hand, does not shy away from the grittiness of how children’s lives can be destroyed. The three main characters in the book are all parentless, and all under extreme circumstances. The heroine in the beginning has to kill her beloved father, turned into a zombie and sent to attack her. Her best friend was unwanted by his family. The third character, Christophe, would be hunted and killed by his own father due to his half-vampiric, dhampir nature (vampire hunter).

There is no glossing over the reality of being abandoned here. The heroine hurts, is hungry, doesn’t know what to do, misses her daddy, and is cold a lot of the time.

And one thing St. Crow does well is shows how people can survive.

“I put my arms around him and hugged. I didn’t care that it hurt my arm and my ribs and my neck and pretty much every other part of me, my heart most of all.

When you’re wrecked, that’s the only thing to do, right? Hold on to whatever you can.

Hold on hard.”

Another thing I really liked about this book is that the heroine’s best friend is half-Asian. And while the emotional aspects of that aren’t really addressed, the heroine’s attention to the physical aspects of that is the first time I’ve seen half-asian characters in US society explicitly treated in books like this. And I am glad to have found one that doesn’t treat race as an angsty albatross around a character’s neck, but doesn’t gloss over it as an issue, either.

I really enjoyed these two books, for very different reasons. I would probably recommend Hotel Under the Sand to readers of books like Phantom Tollbooth or elementary.

Strange Angels is more for the Twilight or middle school/high school set.