Review: Managing big feelings in Philomella

A were-dragon? A talking tree? Saving a world she didn’t know existed? … Philomella’s having an unusual day. Mystery, humour and sparkling magic combine in this middle-grade fantasy-adventure novel – perfect for fans of The World Between Blinks and The Phantom Tollbooth.

When Philomella is drawn into the Impossible Forest – a place where anything can happen and usually does – she’s headed for all the adventure she never wanted. There’s a belligerent princess to rescue, trolls to battle and a treacherously bewitching river to cross … and that’s just for starters. They’re all part of a mysterious enemy’s grand plan to destroy both the Forest and Philomella – and in this world of strange and dangerous magic, she’ll have to beat her deadly opponent using only her brains.

And so, joined by some oddball companions (including a picnic basket with attitude, a boy whose ancestors were trees and a grandmother with weaponised kitchenware), Philomella sets out to do the impossible. 


On the surface, Philomella and The Impossible Forest is a fun story with whimsy and adventure. Philomella, whose life has been turned upside down by her parents’ separation, is carrying a lot of anger – at his father for having a new family, at the people at her new school. When she steps onto a street that she was sure hadn’t existed before, she finds herself a key part of a quest to save the Impossible Forest. She’s not alone on this quest, her companions include a fierce grandmother, a boy descended from trees, a talking dog, a were-dragon, and a picnic basket. They encounter monsters, an obstinate princess, and some baffling puns along the way. There’s a good amount of danger and weapons get drawn, but ultimately this story is about using your heart and your brain to manage difficult circumstances.

Embedded in the story is Philomella’s and the other characters’ internal struggles, whether it is about grappling with one’s identity, forgiving oneself for a past mistake, or forgiving others.

Doris Brett is a clinical psychologist, and her knowledge and ability to discuss emotions were apparent throughout the book. As a psychologist who has worked with children, I enjoyed how certain themes are weaved into the fantasy – one particular scene took the ‘name it to tame it’ approach quite literally in a delightful way. Also, aside from Phillomella’s character arc, I particularly liked Mary’s (the were-dragon) – it was quite touching. I can’t get into why without spoiling the story, but I adored her acceptance of all of her emotions and all parts of herself.

As an adult reader, at times some of these themes felt very spelled out to me, and the Big Bad villain at times slips into cartoonish rather than menacing. However, I’m not the target audience for this book. If I had read this as a child, little me would have loved this. I would have identified with Philomella’s insistence on her ordinariness and hoped I had her compassion and courage. So I hope this book finds its way into the hands of children who will love the adventure, and find comfort in its themes about emotions.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Thank you to Hardie Grant Kids for providing us a copy of the book in exchange for a review.

Review by Priscilla

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