Blue Mountain by Martine Leavitt is a quirky, tender book that follows the life of Tuk, a bighorn sheep. Humans are encroaching on his herd’s territory, and Tuk is the only bighorn who can see the faraway Blue Mountain, a place where his herd might be able to live in peace.
Blue Mountain is a quiet and rather short middle grade book. It’s a simple story, with a straightforward plot and kid-friendly vocabulary. Yet it’s also a profound look at a serious and timely subject––human impact on the natural world––and a sobering meditation on what other species must do to adapt.
Leavitt’s story is a great reminder that being an animal is tough. Humans aside, there are predators and challenges around every corner for Tuk and his herd. But Tuk is resilient and resourceful. Despite its subject matter, the book is ultimately uplifting.
Here are three things I learned from reading Blue Mountain.
1. Let the story set the structure and tone.
Blue Mountain reads like a myth or a fable, which makes the tone differ starkly from most contemporary middle grade fiction. It works, because this is Tuk’s origin story: how he came to be the bighorn sheep that he is, different from the others, yet respected by his herd. The structure borrows some tropes from oral storytelling, and the result feels like something you might hear over a campfire. It’s a tale that could have been passed down from one generation to another, details added over the years.
The book is reflective and thoughtful, which fits the subject matter: Tuk’s journey to discover Blue Mountain––and himself. Yet Leavitt doesn’t let that reflective nature slow the book down. Despite its “quiet” feeling, there’s a lot happening. Nearly every chapter has the sheep in mortal danger of one sort or another. The combination is effective, and quite readable.
2. Get in your characters’ heads. Even if––especially if––they are bighorn sheep.
To write a novel, you really have to get in your characters’ minds. And I wouldn’t know how to even begin exploring the interiority of a bighorn sheep! Yet Leavitt pulls this off to great effect, especially when describing the sheep’s discomfort as they’re forced out of their typical territory and into a dense forest. In the forest, they don’t have the same lines of sight they’re accustomed to on the big mountain. It’s difficult and emotional for them. They feel trapped. Reading these scenes, I was claustrophobic and scared right along with them.
It’s impressive to watch Leavitt foster our connection with the sheep throughout the book through her descriptions of their emotions and physical sensations, and some humorous dialogue. (On another note, it also made me think about this nonsense regarding “relatable characters.” With some skill on the writer’s part and some empathy on the reader’s part, anything can be relatable, friends!)
3. Character self-doubt builds reader empathy.
Tuk constantly questions himself––do I fit in with the other bighorns? Does the Blue Mountain really exist? Is this the quest I should be taking? This encourages readers to cheer him on, and gives us some space in which to do so. Having a protagonist who’s already asking himself the difficult questions makes us want to slide right in there and tell him it’s all going to be okay.
And I wish I could. Despite the book’s sweet ending, I was left feeling pretty down about human impact on the bighorn’s territory. But perhaps that’s part of what Leavitt wants to do here––inspire her readers to think about how human actions change the lives of our animal kin.
I hope all the Tuks out there can find their Blue Mountain.
Want to chat about Blue Mountain or kidlit in general? Find me on Twitter: @beckererine.