42 pages 1 hour read

Erin Entrada Kelly

Lalani of the Distant Sea

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


Lalani of the Distant Sea (September 2019) is the debut fantasy novel of Filipino American author Erin Entrada Kelly. Her books have made the New York Times bestseller list and won multiple awards, including a Newbery Medal, the APALA Award for Children’s Literature, and the Golden Kite Honor Award. Kelly’s other books include Blackbird Fly (2015), The Land of Forgotten Girls (2016), Hello, Universe (2017), You Go First (2018), We Dream of Space (2020), Those Kids from Fawn Creek (2022), and the Maybe Marisol series (2021-23). Lalani of the Distant Sea is intended for children ages 8-12. The book falls into the categories of Children’s Multi-Cultural Folk Tales and Children’s Books on Friendship.

This study guide and all its page citations are based on the Greenwillow Books 2020 Kindle edition of the novel.

Content Warning: The novel’s central character experiences severe pain, a near-fatal illness, and fends off multiple attacks from monsters. This material might be too intense for some young readers.

Plot Summary

The novel is set in a fantasy land consisting of two tropical islands, and its events unfold over a period of a few months. An omniscient narrator tells the story primarily from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl who is traveling to a distant island to find a cure for her sick mother, but many chapters are devoted to the points of view of other characters and mythical creatures. Lalani Sarita’s heroic journey examines the themes of The Power in Smallness, The Duality of Life, and The Virtue of Compassion.

The story begins in a mythical land where two islands are separated by the Veiled Sea. The island of Isa is said to be a place of good fortune where all the needs of the inhabitants are met by the guardian spirit, Fei Diwata, who lives on top of Mount Isa. Across the water is the island of Sanlagita, a place of toil and hardship. Mount Kahna looms over it like an evil spirit. The Sanlagitans long to travel to Isa and bring back its riches. Each year on Sailing Day, the strongest sailors are sent to find the magical island, but they get lost in the Veiled Sea and never return, falling prey to an eel-woman called Ditasa-Ulod, who guards the waters. The people of Sanlagita are ruled by a headman called the menyoro. He makes all major decisions, rations the food, and decides what professions everyone will follow. Men are valued more highly than women, who are seen as weak and useless.

Twelve-year-old Lalani Sarita lives in this oppressive atmosphere with her beloved mother, who plies the dangerous trade of a mender. One scratch from an infected needle can cause the fatal mender’s disease. The only cure is a fabled flower that grows on Mount Isa. Lalani’s father was one of the sailors who lost his life searching for Isa. After his death, Mrs. Sarita was forced to marry her thuggish brother-in-law, Drum. He moves into her house along with his lout of a son, Kul. Drum orders the women of the household around and considers them worthless.

Lalani’s only comfort comes from her friend Veyda, who is a healer, and Veyda’s younger brother Hetsbi, who is timid and afraid to assert himself. A boy named Cade has a crush on Lalani, but she refuses to believe this since she is considered “homely.” One day, Lalani’s mother pricks herself with a needle and contracts mender’s disease. To help her, Lalani seeks a solution and encounters a blind hermit named Ellseth on Mount Kahna, who says that he is a mindoren who came from Isa. Because he stole from the inhabitants, the other mindoren took his eyes and banished him to Sanlagita. He offers to help Lalani using a magical object that he stole from Fei Diwata. It is called an udyo, and Lalani infers that it is Ellseth’s walking stick. She swears to tell no one about Ellseth, and he draws three drops of her blood to seal the deal, using an arrowhead he keeps in a pouch around his neck.

Lalani soon learns that Ellseth tricked her and wants to steal her eyes. Just as he is about to attack, torrential rains cause an avalanche of mud to slide down the mountain, and Ellseth is swept away. Lalani tries to save him but can only grab hold of the pouch around his neck, which she then keeps. Blaming herself for the mudslide because she wished for rain to end the island’s drought, Lalani resolves to find Mount Isa herself. She hopes to heal her mother and all the misfortunes of her people if she can prevail upon Fei Diwata to help. After a perilous journey and many dangerous encounters on Isa, Lalani succeeds in finding the island’s guardian. She learns that Fei Diwata’s udyo is actually the arrowhead in the pouch that Lalani brought with her. Once the arrowhead is restored, Fei Diwata sends birds with seeds and plants to bless Sanlagita. Lalani returns in triumph to her village, bringing with her the good fortune of Isa and proving that even one ordinary little girl can accomplish great things.