A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay

“Seven girls nose to toe, wearing stone like skin as they made their way towards the harvest”

A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay is beautifully written, and raises disturbing questions in its dystopian world with parallels to our reality.

The Mountain looms over Jena’s village, giving the mica which warms their desolate winters, but taking blame whenever the villagers suffer hardship. Worship of the Mountain began generations ago, when the Rockfall killed many and blocked off the valley from the outside world. The villager’s lives are bounded by superstitions about how mica can be harvested from the warren of tunnels that wind through the Mountain.

This matriarchal society has a group of older women, the Mothers, at the centre of mica distribution and from the age of seven, girls vie to join the Harvest. Jena leads her line of seven girls and their dangerous work is a sort-after privilege because they earn a larger share of mica for their families.

How the girls become small and strong and fearless is horrendous. Daughters are prized and a new baby’s measurements are proudly displayed after birth. Daughters are raised separately with careful feeding, wrapping and lying still for hours to stunt their growth.

Jena lost her family at a young age and the birth of a girl to her adoptive family triggers memories of her mother’s death in childbirth and the awful consequences for her father and newborn sister. As she begins to question everything she knows, the true horror of what the Mothers do to appease the Mountain and ensure the Harvest, torments Jena.

“She was splitting open, her world upending itself from the inside out.”

The village is so ensnared in their traditions, they never question the brutality of what they do to their daughters. Meg McKinlay came to this twisted world through thinking about cultural traditions which brutalize girls but are perpetrated by their mothers and other women, eg. foot binding. Today, women’s ingrained views on body image and how to attain to “perfect” body can be unwittingly passed onto their daughters and the cycle continues.

After reading A Single Stone I googled mica to find out how Jena’s stone corresponds to reality. Meg McKinlay didn’t know this while writing, but in the mica mines of India, children work illegally to mine this mineral which gives the shimmer to cosmetics. Different types of mica have a myriad of uses from insulation to giving to shine to automotive paint. In my work at a nursery we use vermiculite to grow seeds. It shimmers like flakes of gold and I knew it was a mineral. Now I know it’s a form of mica and it could be from illegal child labour. The Mothers in A Single Stone horrified me but our world is worse because real children suffer so we can sparkle. If only these children had a heroine as strong as Jena.

While Meg McKinlay’s words paint amazing pictures in my mind, I didn’t so much like the cover. This had more to do with the printing than the design. The cover is printed on matte card and the blues don’t show up well on my copy. When I look at the cover online, the blue streaks in Jena’s hair really pop and draw my eye. On my copy of the book the stone is a darker grey and the blue of her hair is barely noticeable.

I loved reading about Gayna Murphy’s design process for the cover on Walker Books’ blog. She includes concept sketches and alternative designs.  I like no.4 with hands holding the stone and the cleft in the rock. Reading that the title font was inspired by the movie Seven is epic. That title sequence is a work of art in itself, described by The New York Times as “one of the most important design innovations of the 1990s.” The themes aren’t comparable but both are dark and tragic. A Single Stone is more kid-friendly only because the horrific ideas are in the background.