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Books to Read, Love, and Share: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
In The Hazel Wood, Alice and her mother have never been able to shake the bad luck trailing them. At seventeen, Alice has known more hotel rooms than homes, and truck stop food is familiar. Alice has always dreamed of living with her grandmother in her mansion, the Hazel Wood, and listening to her retell the fairy tales she made her fortune writing. But when her grandmother dies and her mother gets kidnapped by shadowy figures, Alice realizes that they aren’t as far ahead of their bad luck as she’d hoped.
Now, she must recruit the help of one of her grandmother’s fans to uncover the truth of her mother’s disappearance. The kidnappers claim to come from the Hinterland (wherever that is), and her mother’s last note warns Alice to stay away from the Hazel Wood. Can Alice save her mother and have a happy ending, or will this dark fairy tale end in tragedy?
The Hazel Wood dug its claws into me on page one and didn’t let go until the end. This is perfectly paced, acute, and perceptive prose in the vein of Gillian Flynn. Melissa Albert builds suspense by describing the drip drip drip of the coffeepot in the café, and sizes up characters in a breath. Her protagonist is rough around the edges, fierce, and funny.
“The man my mother married, not four months after he asked her out at an event she was working as a cocktail waitress, lived on the second to the top floor of a building off Fifth Avenue. His name was Harold, he was rich as Croesus, and he thought Lorrie Moore was a line of house paint. That was all you needed to know about Harold.”
Albert expertly leads you along Alice’s rescue mission slash journey of self-discovery in a way that will engage and entice. Every reveal has a major pay off, and the deep emotional investment along the way is worth it.
It’s not every day you get a stand-alone thriller with a solid plot AND characters, but the characters are fleshed out, too. Ellery Finch is a treasure of an ally – he’s our Gatekeeper (our Hagrid), but also our Sidekick (our Ron AND our Hermione). He’s everything to Alice, and he’s everything to us. Finch is a superfan of Alice’s grandmother’s work, and he exposes Alice to the cult following of her grandmother’s fairy tales. To boot, he’s actually read the tales, which is more than Alice has ever been able to do.
This is a gripping tale of family, fate, and agency, and you’ll love it from start to finish.
In the Classroom
I am SO EXCITED to share this book with students. Not only will copies fly off the shelves of your classroom library, you can also work in any portion of the book as a mentor text. Here’s an early section that really got my own creative juices flowing. This is when Alice sees a copy of her grandmother’s book for the first time. Copies are next to impossible to get a hold of, and her mother has kept her away from knowing about the tales entirely.
“I’d sat cross-legged on the attic’s tacky rag rug and opened the book reverently, tracing my finger down the table of contents. Of course, I knew my grandmother was an author, but I’d been pretty incurious about her up to that point. I was told almost nothing about her, and assumed she wrote dry grown-up stuff I wouldn’t have wanted to read anyway. But this was clearly a storybook, and looked like the best kind, too: a book of fairy tales. There were twelve in all.
The Door That Wasn’t There
Hansa the Traveler
The Clockwork Bride
Jenny and the Night Women
The Skinned Maiden
The House Under the Stairwell
The Sea Cellar
The Mother and the Dagger
Death and the Woodwife”
This Table of Contents really got to me because it’s clear from the get-go how dark these fairy tales are. We eventually get to hear a couple of them, but our imagination soars from the moment we read these titles.
It’s easy to imagine using this in a high school creative writing class. You could have students read some fairy tales and talk about archetypes and tropes. Then, why not have them write some of these tales, based on what the title sparks in their imaginations? If these titles are too dark for you, you and your students could generate some titles of your own and write from there.
The Hazel Wood also presents an excellent opportunity to talk about the genre of dark fairy tales. Alice is extremely genre-savvy for a protagonist. We see her make some solid choices in her journey like being nice to old women and phrasing wishes very carefully. This would pair well with Neil Gaiman’s poem, “Instructions”. Students could take one of the instructions and write a tale where the characters don’t follow the rule. What happens to them? What consequences do they face?
Let’s be real: you need this book on your bookshelves as soon as possible. I’m so grateful to Flatiron Books for sending me an Advance Copy, and I hope you head on over to Amazon and grab yours today. If you choose to do so, please consider using my affiliate link. I use the small commission to keep bringing you reviews and resources for your secondary ELA classroom.