“I loved every speck of it.” —Kelly Barnhill, Newbery Medal–winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon
From New York Times bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente comes an inventive middle grade fantasy that follows a boy journeying away from the only home he’s ever known and into the magical realm of the dead to fulfill a bargain for his people.
Osmo Unknown hungers for the world beyond his small town. With the life that Littlebridge society has planned for him, the only taste Osmo will ever get are his visits to the edge of the Fourpenny Woods where his mother hunts. Until the unthinkable happens: his mother accidentally kills a Quidnunk, a fearsome and intelligent creature that lives deep in the forest.
None of this should have anything to do with poor Osmo, except that a strange treaty was once formed between the Quidnunx and the people of Littlebridge to ensure that neither group would harm the other. Now that a Quidnunk is dead, as the firstborn child of the hunter who killed her, Osmo must embark on a quest to find the Eightpenny Woods—the mysterious kingdom where all wild forest creatures go when they die—and make amends.
Accompanied by a very rude half-badger, half-wombat named Bonk and an antisocial pangolin girl called Never, it will take all of Osmo’s bravery and cleverness to survive the magic of the Eightpenny Woods to save his town…and make it out alive.
Reading Group Guide
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Osmo Unknown longs to be somewhere else, anywhere else. He’s tired of Littlebridge village, where the town motto is “Nobody gets what they want.” But when life forces Osmo on a quest in the Forest, he learns how amazing and dangerous the outside world can be. He teams up with two reluctant allies: Bonk the Cross, a witty but cranky badger-skunk-wombat creature, and Nevermore, who is half girl and half pangolin and loves solitude. Together they confront fearsome creatures called Quidnunx, and the three make their way through the Land of the Dead, uncertain of their fate. Even if they make it out alive, Osmo and his new friends will never be the same again.
1. Explain the origin myth about the Forest and Valley, and the effect it has had on Osmo’s community. Why did the Forest and Valley have a falling out? In what ways are the inhabitants of the Forest different from those of the Valley?
2. Describe what Osmo is like as a person when the book opens. Why does he care so much about being right? How do his fellow students feel about him? Identify some ways he changes by the end of the story, giving specific examples.
3. Osmo realizes during his encounter with Mustamakkara, “His favorite place in all the world would always be wherever he wasn’t at any given moment.” (Chapter fourteen) When do you first learn that he always wants something Else? How does he react when he finally does end up somewhere else? What does that tell you about him?
4. Describe the members of Osmo’s family, and how he fits in with them. How does Oona help him? Why is his father so hard on him? Why does his father always say to him, “Be a Man?” (Chapter three) What does Osmo realize about his father’s childhood near the end of the story?
5. What are the two main social divisions in Littlebridge? How does Osmo’s family fit in? How does Ivy’s? Ivy says she couldn’t go to the festival with Osmo because “‘That’s just not how the world works.’” (Chapter three) What does she mean? How does her status affect her life and options?
6. Why do the other kids call Osmo “Turnip”? What does it mean to him? Why does he hate it? Near the novel’s end, when Bonk says, “‘All right then, Turnip?’” Osmo says, “‘I am a turnip,’” and it doesn’t bother him at all. (Chapter twenty-seven) Why does he feel differently about it then?
7. Who does Mrs. Brownbread seem to be when the reader first meets her? Describe her appearance and personality. How does she interact with Osmo during the festival? What do you learn about her in chapter twenty-five? What is magical about her and her past?
8. Describe the game doublechess, and explain when it’s important in the story, and why. What did winning Adelard Sloe’s Stupendous Throwing Game mean to Osmo?
9. How does Bonk go about making a wedding outfit for Osmo? Describe the outfit and explain why Osmo thinks it “was the most astonishing suit of clothes he could imagine.” (Chapter seven) Why does he end up wearing the Frostfrau’s crown? How does he feel about being dressed up like this?
10. What is a Quidnunk? How do they fit into the history that Osmo knows about the Valley and Forest? Describe Osmo’s meeting with Mumpsimus. What does she look like? How does she treat him?
11. Give some examples of how Mumpsimus and other Quidnunx talk. Relate the examples to Mrs. Brownbread’s comment, “‘That’s something we do for others. So they can experience our thoughts with all the bells and whistles we come by naturally.’” (Chapter twenty-five)
12. Bonk the Cross is a wonderful character. What makes him distinct? How does Osmo first react to him? How do they become friends? Talk about Bonk’s childhood and how it affected him.
13. Never also becomes good friends with Osmo. What is she like? Why is it hard for her to be with other people? What does she appreciate about being solitary? What role does she play in Osmo’s quest?
14. How does Mustamakkara, the Last Bird, help usher creatures into the Land of the Dead? Describe her and summarize her encounter with Osmo. Why does she say that he’s broken? What important gift does she give him, and why?
15. Talk about Mustamakkara’s three questions and why she asks those specific questions. How does Osmo answer them, and what do his answers say about him?
16. When do Osmo and his friends meet the Dark? What are some of the Dark’s qualities? Explain how Osmo wins a prize in the Dark’s hammer game and why it matters.
17. What is the Nextant like? How does she help Osmo? Why do you think she likes Never so much? Button also joins for part of the journey. How does it communicate with Osmo? What part does Button play in tricking Osmo?
18. The batterflies Unlike and Until explain to Osmo what he needs to bring to the wedding, telling him he has only three days and that he has to court the Queen ““first as a bird, then as a deer, and finally as a fish.’” (Chapter seventeen) What do the requirements mean? Which of the objects does he find in his quest, and how?
19. Why does Osmo start to grow horns and fur? How do Bonk and Never react? Why do you think he can see well in the dark at that same time? How does he feel about the changes?
20. In describing her own past, Mrs. Brownbread says, “Do you know what a wedding is? It’s a change. Two natures meet and make something new.” (Chapter twenty-six) Discuss her statement and explain why Osmo expected to marry Queen Melancholy. What actually happens with that wedding?
21. Mrs. Brownbread also says, “That’s the real magic, you know. Change. That’s all magic has ever been.” (Chapter twenty-six) Discuss what she means and tie it into Osmo’s quest and how he changes.
22. Discuss the conversation between Never and Osmo in chapter twenty-seven where he asks her if they did the right thing, and she says, “‘Of course we did. . . We won.’” What is Never’s explanation of winning? How does Osmo react to her explanation?
23. Why is chapter one titled “The Wild and the Mild”? In the chapter about the explosion, Osmo sees “Two natures everywhere. The wild and the mild.” (From the chapter titled “The Explosion at the End of This Book”) Discuss these and other references to two natures, and what they mean.
24. The author speaks directly to the reader at certain points in the book such as in the opening pages, the closing pages, and the chapters titled “The Explosion at the End of This Book” and “A Brief and Late Intermission.” How does the author’s direct voice affect the reader? What does it add?
25. Detailed descriptions in the novel bring the settings to life. Find some descriptive passages of specific places and analyze how the author builds images with her words. Discuss the author’s use of figurative language.
Journey to the Underworld
Most cultures have myths about death. Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods draws from Greek and other mythologies. Have students find places in the novel that refer to traditional mythology. Then have each student research or review the Greek myth of Persephone, as well as Greek mythology about Hades and the journey to the Underworld. Each student should also research and report back to the class about mythology or folklore about death from another culture.
Twice as Good?
Never is half human and half pangolin. Mrs. Brownbread explains that humans have two natures, with one trapped inside, such as “a crow’s cleverness or an otter’s curiosity.” (Chapter twenty-six) Ask each student to create a half human, half animal creature. They should write a paragraph about the attributes that the animal half adds and explain their choices. Each student should create a poster with a picture of the new creature and the paragraph about them.
Remember the Stone
When the book opens, the motto in Littlebridge is “Nemo Nancit Desiderium Eorum.” At the end, it’s been changed to “Remember the Stone.” Have a discussion about the two mottos and about the change. Then have students create a list of mottos they like of countries, states, cities, and organizations. Ask students to work in small groups to create a motto for your school or classroom. Gather as a class and discuss the proposed mottos.
Ask students to find several passages of Quidnunk speech that they like and translate them into plain English. Then the students should write an original paragraph that they imagine a Quidnunk might say and also provide the translation for that. Have them share their work in small groups.
Make a Book Trailer
Like a movie trailer, a book trailer highlights a book’s aspects that will draw in an audience. Invite students to work in small groups to create a book trailer that conveys the novel’s appeal. Possible tools are iMovie, Canva, or Animoto. The book trailer can be live action, animated, or a multimedia video that combines images, text, voice-over, music, and more. Share the trailers with the class and compare the choices different groups made.
Guide written by Kathleen Odean, a youth librarian for seventeen years who chaired the 2002 Newbery Award Committee. She now gives all-day workshops on new books for children and teens. She tweets at @kathleenodean.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit simonandschuster.net or simonandschuster.net/thebookpantry.
Catherynne M. Valente is an acclaimed New York Times bestselling creator of over forty works of fantasy and science fiction, including the Fairyland novels and The Glass Town Game. She has been nominated for the Nebula and World Fantasy awards, and has won the Otherwise (formerly Tiptree), Hugo, and Andre Norton award. She lives on a small island off the coast of Maine with her partner, young son, and a shockingly large cat with most excellent tufts.
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (April 26, 2022)
Length: 416 pages
Grades: 3 - 7
Ages: 8 - 12
Lexile ® 670L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®
“Charmingly dark and darkly charming, a fairy tale that veers between the almost familiar and the wildly unexpected, Valente’s story will delight any reader who is both fierce and gentle, wild and mild, fond of wombats and pangolins and all manner of strange beasts.”
– Ursula Vernon, author of Castle Hangnail
“Valente takes us on a wild journey through the absurd, the mundane, the outlandish, the silly, and the strange, often turning us on our heads. I loved every speck of it.”
– Kelly Barnhill, author of the New York Times bestselling Newbery Medal Winner The Girl Who Drank the Moon
* "This imagination- and description-rich tale is for those enamored by The Phantom Tollbooth and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s threaded with laugh-out-loud humor and danger, but ultimately it’s a call for empathy and overcoming adversarial attitudes, which feels exactly right in these divided times."