Hotel Dare tells us that family are the ones you fight for. The story comes out swinging, with newly adopted Charlotte explaining she beat up a kid at school because he was saying things about her family. As eldest sister Olive points out, everything the kid said is true, the siblings don’t look alike at all and Olive is queer. Still, it’s this fighting nature, and the notion that how you protect your family won’t always be popular with them, that holds the story together. Hotel Dare offers a number of ways for families to fall apart, from the space pirate Mila being exiled from their world for who they love, to Mamá Lupe neglecting her son while she lookes for her lost husband in the magical worlds. Amidst strife there’s always the hope for love triumphing.
Olive, Darwin, and Charlotte are spending their summer with their abuela in Mexico at the Hotel Dare. It looms on the first page in a splash of boxy house shapes cobbled together and teetering at the highest levels, connected by rope ladders. Olive has an ulterior motive to their trip: to discover why it is their father and Mamá Lupe are estranged, what fight it was that separated them. Mamá Lupe makes it clear they’re there to help her clean and fix up the hotel, but softens her expectations with conchas, hot chocolate, and several days of the siblings lounging around the house.
Once the work gets underway, they split up to clean three separate rooms and simultaneously discover three closets leading to three different fantasy worlds. Olive is in a wizarding world where she finds herself comforting Brad, a muscled apprentice with chiseled features and long flowing blond locks crushed by his hideous inability to grow a beard, the most important status symbol of his world. Darwin, who almost never speaks in the real world, is drawn into a world of cotton candy colors and fluff juxtaposed with dark black glass. A fuzzy floating creature befriends him. Charlotte finds a world of space pirates and opportunities to put her tinkering abilities to good use. None of the worlds are quite what they appear and the siblings find out many family secrets as they begin to understand everything Mamá Lupe has been hiding in the Hotel Dare.
Terry Blas’s writing in Hotel Dare spins out character development and action in well measured doses. We never find out much about the siblings’ pasts, beyond Charlotte and Darwin having come from orphanages. What’s important is how they act now in preserving or stressing their family. The worlds they end up in tell us more about their inner struggles and identities. Mamá Lupe’s past is fully developed, a beautiful homage to a love of fantasy stories and Mexican history and mythology. Not to mention Mamá Lupe has led a pretty badass adventure-packed life in the many worlds. Blas weaves themes of isolation, gender, justice, and bigotry into the story. There’s a lot of the plot I’m leaving out so you’ll get to enjoy it unfolding, you’ll just have to trust me. The only weakness in the book is that it ends much too soon. You will feel like there should be a sequel before you realize that the resolution is already there, you just didn’t get to experience the fallout and emotional work still to come for the characters. You want more time with the characters. The kind of longing only great books can bring.
Claudia Aguirre’s art is dynamic and busy, colors and shapes often crammed in like the erratic rooflines of the Hotel Dare. Sometimes the panels slant and crash under the action. The faces are cartoonish with crystal clear emotions, touching on the human core of the fantasy story. Color palettes and background art styles create the character of the different worlds, cool toned soaring fantasy for the wizard world, soft warm colors and childish shapes for Darwin’s world and geometric metallic settings for the space pirates. These divisions are necessary to help the reader navigate the story as it frequently switches between the different worlds. In every world, even ours, there’s always a sense of something glowing that makes Hotel Dare feel alive in your hands.
I’m reaching back a bit for this review; Hotel Dare was published three years ago. It’s an often overlooked gem that features a Latinx cast, LGBTQ issues, and the kind of fantasy multiple dimension world building that never goes out of style. I breathlessly tore through the advance reader copy, pushed it in booktalks, and for years have worn a pin on my lanyard like the mysterious one discovered in Mamá Lupe’s office. If you missed it, I hope you’ll take a second look for your collections and programming. Hotel Dare has a place in any children’s collection. There are no content issues, but upper elementary and tween students will get more from the nuances of the family dynamics. Hand it to kids reading 5 Worlds, Star Scouts, and Lumberjanes. Chapter book fans of Dragons in a Bag and visitors to Narnia, Neverland, and other magical portals will also find a lot to love.
By Terry Blas
Art by Claudia Aguirre
BOOM! KaBOOM!, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 9-11
NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation: Mexican-American, Queer
Character Representation: Mexican-American, Queer