The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

About TJ Klune

TJ Klune is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling, Lambda Literary Award-winning author of The House in the Cerulean Sea, The Extraordinaries, and more. Being queer himself, Klune believes it’s important—now more than ever—to have accurate, positive queer representation in stories. (Source: Macmillan Publishers)

The House in the Cerulean Sea – A Summary

Linus Baker is a mid-level, middle aged bureaucrat who works for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. A caseworker, his job is to investigate orphanages for magical children to check that there is no neglect or abuse. As is made clear in the opening chapters of the book, however, it is not for him to wonder about why children are never adopted or what becomes of them once they grow into adults—that’s above his pay grade. In the world he inhabits, rules are to be strictly adhered to. Magic is not to be tolerated and anything deemed even slightly unusual merits investigation aka children who can make objects float, who have tails or feathers, or those who are young witches. Across the city, official posters ominously declare: “A QUIET CHILD IS A HEALTHY CHILD” and ”WE’RE HAPPIEST WHEN WE LISTEN TO THOSE IN CHARGE” and, ”SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING. REGISTRATION HELPS EVERYONE!”

Linus is content to keep a low profile and do his job with thoroughness but the author Klune indicates to the reader how he longs for more. In his well ordered life, the mouse pad on his otherwise sterile desk is of the ocean and a brightly shining sun—a place he longs to see. At home every evening, he listens to classics on his vinyls as he converses with an alley cat that adopted him and has made itself at home.

When he’s called upon by Extremely Upper Management to an island orphanage for children deemed especially unusual, he is pushed out of his comfort zone. He is expected to continue to play the role of the reliable employee, a cog in the larger government machinery in which he has little agency. Tasked with staying at the island of Marsyas for one month, he is asked to submit meticulous weekly reports to Extremely Upper Management leaving nothing out and reporting on even the slightest divergence from what is deemed acceptable conduct.

What follows is a magic-filled journey with children who are unexpected, funny and defy convention like Talia the gnome, Theodore the wyvern and Phee the sprite. The person responsible for these young ones, the master or proprietor of the orphanage, Arthur Parnassus, is a man he cannot quite put his finger on. Strange and charming at once, he is committed to caring for his charges and giving them a loving home in the face of a world that fears and rejects these children. As Linus spends more time on the island, he begins to question his closely held beliefs and the world that shuns the kids for being different. When island sprite Ms Chapelwhite shows him the hate-filled messages being sent to the island telling the children to leave, he takes a first step in his personal journey by responding with a polite, ‘No, Thank you.’

As we journey through the book with these delightful characters, Klune speaks powerfully to the hate and fear-riven world we currently inhabit. “Hate is loud, but I think you’ll learn it’s because it’s only a few people shouting, desperate to be heard. You might not ever be able to change their minds, but so long as your remember you’re not alone, you will overcome,” says one of the characters. At another juncture, Klune speaks to how we have the power to build our own communities and the role these chosen homes have to play in shaping what we call home: “A home isn’t always the house we live in. It’s also the people we choose to surround ourselves with. You may not live on the island, but you can’t tell me it’s not your home. Your bubble, Mr. Baker. It’s been popped. Why would you allow it to grow around you again?”

This is a hope-filled book which reminds you of the power of magic, of celebrating diversity and love in all its myriad shapes and forms. Klune deftly establishes a world of fantasy but the resonance with present times is difficult to miss. Therein also lies the beauty of the book and its call to believe and make room again for the unusual and extraordinary.

Further reading:

Interview with TJ Klune“I choose to believe that a good number of people want to feel hope, especially over the last year we’ve all been through. And the idea of accepting differences and creating change through goodwill is something that people can believe in, no matter what age they are.”

Discussion Themes and Questions:

– What was your overall impression of the book?
– What are the the themes that particularly emerge with regard to children and well-being?
– What are some other themes that are embedded within the book?
– Which character did you find most interesting and why?