Book Review: 27 Magic Words by Sharelle Byars Moranville

27 Magic Words is not a charming little fantasy about wizards or fairy-tale lands.  Yet it does have a strong sense of fantasy about it.  A little bit of fantasy and just the right vocabulary can breathe life into a grim reality.

Ten-year-old Kobi and her older sister Brooke live an unusual life.  They have lived in their grandmother’s elegant Paris apartment for five years, since their parents sailed away on a research trip.  But now Grandmamma is going on a honeymoon with the man she’s always loved, and the girls must go stay with their Uncle Wim in Des Moines.

Neither girl is thrilled about staying in their uncle’s strange old bare-bones house, or giving up their tutors for a typical American school, or learning to eat food that came from a can.  Brooke copes with her stress by typical obsessive-compulsive behaviors, like checking the faucet or arranging things in just the right pattern of numbers.  Kobi has a much more powerful method of coping.  When Kobi was very young, her mother gave her 27 magic words “Serious magic.  Our secret,” her mother tells her.) written on Post-It notes.  Certain words have certain powers – trillium helps find things, squelch calms things down, carillon lets a person know she has been forgiven.  Best of all is Avanti!, which lets Kobi see her parents shipwrecked on an island, their own little tropical paradise.

The girls need all their coping skills to navigate the social jungle of American schools.  To make friends, Kobi resorts to a few white lies and half-truths that spin out of control.  And she’s not the only one who’s been avoiding harsh realities.  When the biggest lie of all comes crashing down on Kobi, even her magic words can’t save her.  Can Kobi face reality and still find room for magic?

Kobi is an interesting psychological study.  There is plenty about her for children to empathize with– she loves her family, she hates yucky food, she’s confused by the popularity politics that makes grade school so hard.  But she’s also odd and hard to hold on to.  She seems to blow in the wind of other people’s expectations, without a stable core of her own.  There are many scenes where she is oddly detached, or lying and ashamed of her lies and disconnected from her lies at the same time.  It is only after the crisis that she begins to integrate her mind and soul, and behave like a real human being.

Escapism is a recurring theme in the book.  Many of the characters are trying to avoid something.  Grandmamma wants to ignore her health issues.  Uncle Wim wants to renounce his legacy.  His girlfriend Sally can’t let go of duty and embrace the future, while her mother’s only link to reality is her art.  The “popular” girls at school won’t admit how mean and Machiavellian they are.  Brooke is desperate to avoid the “worst thing” and uses OCD as her protection. Kobi’s friend Norman relies on his carefully-chosen wardrobe to help him literally blend in to the background.  They are all pretty messed up, yet likable.

I can’t say I loved this book.  It isn’t charming and heartwarming and cuddly.  But it is powerful, and rings with a certain truth.  If your child is looking for a fun, light read, this isn’t it; it’s quite a tearjerker despite the all’s-well ending.  But it could be very useful for any child dealing with mental health issues or with families being torn apart.  I recommend it with caution, and only for mature readers.

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