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Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods

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About The Book

“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.

Excerpt

Chapter One: The Wild and the Mild

Chapter One THE WILD AND THE MILD
Osmo Unknown had always lived in Littlebridge, and nothing interesting had ever happened to him there.

He was born, neither rich nor poor, in a little white four-room cottage on the north side of the Catch-a-Crown River, almost at the furthest edge of town. He thought he would most likely die an old man with a white beard, neither rich nor poor, in a little white four-room cottage on the north side of the Catch-a-Crown River.

He was quite, quite wrong about that.

Osmo Unknown was not precisely the sort of person you think of when someone says the word hero. He wasn’t impressively big or strong. He didn’t have a famous sword or a glorious destiny foretold through the ages. He had thick curly black hair and friendly hazel eyes, the color of old pages and old leaves. He was a bit short and thin for his age, with long clever fingers. The boys in school thought him strange and the girls didn’t think about him at all.

On the other hand, Littlebridge was precisely the kind of place you think of when someone says the word village. The bell tower in the center of town. The painted houses with straw-and-clover roofs and crisscrossed windows. The schoolhouse and the green-and-brown river full of trout and eels and the tavern with golden, welcoming light in the windows even at eight in the morning. The bits of roof gargoyle and marble rose leaves from an age when folk took a bit more care with architecture. All nestled in a pretty valley with good, steady rain and strong, reliable sun, sandwiched between the steep blue mountains on one side and a deep, thorny forest on the other.

And of course, there was no shortage of mysterious legends no one believed in anymore and stern rules everyone broke when they were young and insisted on when they got old.

What sorts of rules? Oh, just the usual kind. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Don’t go out alone after sundown and never eat anything that talks and stay out of the woods no matter what, this means you.

In fact, there was only one single, solitary strange and unusual thing in the whole town. Only one thing you wouldn’t find in any other town of the same size and age and climate.

Where the crossroads met in the center of town rose a great red granite pillar. On the very tip-top of the pillar, a silver skull had looked down on everyone for a number of centuries now.

The skull was huge.

The skull was not human.

The skull was almost like an elephant’s head, and a little like a great stag’s, and something unsettlingly like a tyrannosaurus’s. But it was not an elephant, either. It was not a deer. And it was most certainly not a Tyrannosaurus rex.

No one paid it any more attention than they gave to the bell tower or the shoe shop.

Except Osmo Unknown.

Osmo paid attention to everything. He knew every street and side road of his home. Every wishing well, every stony building and sturdy roof. Good old Dapplegrim Square with Soothfaste Church on one side and the Cruste and Cheddar Tavern on the other. The Afyngred Agricultural Hall and Bonefire Park. The Katja Kvass Memorial Fountain bubbling away pleasantly on the long grass, clear water weeping from a pretty young woman’s pale stone eyes and spilling from the wound in her marble heart into a great wide pool. The crumbling Brownbread Mill still grinding wheat into wealth just south of the main part of town. St. Whylom’s School in its industrial shadow, looking out over the river. The little Kalevala Opera House that hadn’t put on a single opera in Osmo’s thirteen years of life. All the fine shops with real glass windows lining Yclept Closeway. The big wide half-burnt steps of Bodeworde’s Armory, which had gone up in a blaze a hundred and fifty years before. They’d kept the stairs as a reminder never to get careless with gunpowder again.

Osmo knew them all.

The boy with the hazel eyes had never gotten lost, not once, not in his whole life. He couldn’t get lost in Littlebridge any more than you can get lost in your own body.

Osmo hated it.

He hated knowing every street and side road. He hated knowing that the sugar maples in front of Mittu Grumm’s Toy and Shoe Shoppe would always go bright scarlet by the third of October. He hated the ravens that stayed and the sparrows that had somewhere better to be—somewhere he could never go. He hated his dumb ancestor who couldn’t even be bothered to come up with a good fake name for the family. On days when he felt particularly angry at the shape of everything, he even hated the Whaleskin Mountains for keeping him penned in with their useless, dopey sheer glittering jagged cliffs.

But most of all, deep down in his bones, he hated that he’d never been lost, not one minute in his life, that he never would be lost, not in Littlebridge, not in his little white four-room cottage, not anywhere. Of course there were stories of a much more interesting Littlebridge, long ago when magic and monsters and princesses and curses were as common as tea in the afternoon. But they seemed to have run right out of that sort of thing.

Except the silver skull. Except that one single, solitary, fantastic, wonderful strange and unusual thing. Every time he passed it on his way from one dull, familiar place to the next, Osmo swore he could feel its huge, empty eye sockets watching him. Its long, curved fangs reaching out for him. It made the hairs on the back of his neck rise up and his stomach flip over. But that was little enough strangeness for a heart to live on.

Everything in Osmo’s world was already mapped out to the very edges of the page. The village ran like a perfect brass watch. All he wanted was to wake up one day and find the hands snapped off and the bell ringing out twenty-five o’clock.

The very worst of it all was this: Osmo Unknown absolutely, thoroughly loathed the entire idea of becoming a hunter when he grew up. Everyone assumed he’d do just that, as surely as the moon changed in the sky. Osmo would follow his mother, Tilly, into the family business, make a good marriage, and keep the little house of Unknown industry chugging along neatly. But he wanted nothing to do with it. Osmo didn’t want to kill anything. He didn’t want to be good at using his mother’s big beautiful gun. He didn’t want to know how to cut up pelts and gut a deer and portion out the meat so that it could be made into pies and kebabs and stews and roasts.

He didn’t want his job to be hurting things.

But he couldn’t tell anyone how he felt, and Osmo hated that, too. Hunting was a noble profession. Any family would be proud to have a hunter at the holiday table. He knew everyone had to eat to live, and killing a single deer could mean safety and health for a whole winter. But he just didn’t see why it had to be him.

The only good thing about hunters was that they were allowed to go into the Fourpenny Woods whenever they wanted.

Everyone else was forbidden to cross the tree line. When he was little, Osmo’s mother let him wait for her every day, just inside the first clusters of maples and junipers. He used to stare into the shadows, and his soul filled up with the rich, new smell of sap.

But it was off-limits.

To everyone. Forever.

And it was all because of them. Everyone knew what would happen if you went too deep into the woods. Something lived in the deep trees. Something no one had seen in living memory, but everyone dreamed of on their worst nights, tossing and turning in their beds as though it were possible to escape. Something with terrible teeth that lived in the dark.

Something called the Quidnunx.

The Quidnunx stayed in the woods. Humans stayed in the village. Meddling with that was beyond foolish. It was pure, screaming madness.

No, each to their own was best for all, agreed the old folk from the mansions to the marshes. Monsters and men do not mix. The woods were very wild and the town was very mild. The wild and the mild of this world do not get along so well, and nobody ever born in Littlebridge was the sort of person to go testing the rules.

Except one boy with very bright, very wide hazel eyes and long shaggy dark hair and no friends to speak of.

Every inch of the Forest the law let Osmo explore was as precious as a whole emerald to his heart. He loved the woods like he loved his mother. And he feared the great tangle of trees, as he feared his father. But he didn’t love the Forest for the usual reasons. He didn’t love it because it was forbidden. Well, not just because it was forbidden. He didn’t love it because it was dangerous, and therefore exciting. He loved it because it was secret and quiet and lonely, like him. He loved it because it was never the same twice. You couldn’t know a forest like you could know a village. As soon as you thought you did, it would change on you. The trees that went orange before the harvest last year hung on to their green almost till Christmas this year, and the sound you heard might be a hedgehog or a squirrel, but it might just as easily be something… else.

Osmo Unknown lived and breathed and thirsted for the Else.

But until he turned thirteen, all he ever found in the shadows were hedgehogs and squirrels and the occasional bright red October leaf, swirling down from a grey, cold sky.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide for

Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods

By Catherynne M. Valente

About the Book

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.

Discussion Questions

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.

Extension Activities

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.

Translation, Please

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.

About The Author

Courtesy of the author

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.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (April 26, 2022)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781481476997
  • Ages: 8 - 12

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Raves and Reviews

“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."

– Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

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