Category Archives for Book Reviews

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.

Book Review: A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

If your child is a reader, a believer, a magic-wish-maker, then they need to read Natalie Lloyd’s A Snicker of Magic.  I was first hooked by the word “snicker” – a suggestive hint of a mischievous world, where words shape reality.  That snicker flits throughout the book like the green fairy, just out of sight but always full of tantalizing hope.

To be honest, after the first few chapters I was angry.  I feel the same way when I read James Thurber (The Wonderful O) or Peter Beagle (The Last Unicorn).  I am furious that I will never be able to write anything as beautiful and captivating and simple.  I could slave for a year to create one perfectly polished sentence – and Lloyd created an entire book of such gems.

By the last few chapters, I was crying, not just because of the story, but because I would soon finish the book, and never be able to read it for the first time again.  But hey, love makes you crazy, and that’s how much I fell in love with this book.  It’s the sort of book that can slide into your soul and change you for years after you’ve forgotten it.

It’s a story of magic, lost and found.  Felicity’s magic is collecting words.  She sees them dancing and wiggling around her.  But her mother sees only the distant horizon, another highway to follow.  Felicity and her sister and her mother are always together, but always lost and lonely.  Then they move secluded Midnight Gulch, her mother’s hometown.  The town used to have magic, but only shattered remnants remain in the dreamers and lost souls left behind.

The people are quirky and charming and achingly sad.  Felicity is the soul of the story, but The Beedle is its heart.  She joins forces with this mysterious do-gooder.  Together they help people recover the memories of their magic with the careful application of a few pints of Blackberry Sunrise ice cream.

Since the protagonist is a twelve-year-old girl, the story will probably appeal most to girls age 10 and up.  But another major character is a boy, so it could appeal to thoughtful boys as well.  It may also appeal to children who have divorced or missing parents, children with physical disabilities, children with precarious living situations (ie, homeless, semi-homeless, or nomadic).  Of course, it will appeal most of all to students who love words and books.

Some parents like to read a book before their child in case there is any questionable content.  I don’t think that is necessary here.  There is no violent or sexual content, and no death.  But I highly recommend that you read it anyway.  One, it’s completely worthwhile.  Two, it is the sort of book that will make your child think, and you should be prepared to help your child process thoughts they may never have considered before:  Other people live differently than we do – what is “normal”?  How do I push myself to be braver and better?  How can I help others in little ways?  How do I figure out what is helpful for others?  What is it that people really need to be happy, and what makes me truly happy?

I would compare this book to A Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson and Inkheart by Cornelia Funke.  Serious, even sad, yet uplifting and magical.

Book Review: Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill by Maud Hart Lovelace

An old-timey story with surprisingly modern importance

If your daughter hasn’t read the Betsy-Tacy series yet, go out and buy them right now.  Don’t even ask, just buy the whole set.  It’s a charming series, based on the author’s real life, of best friends growing up in the small town of Deep Valley, Minnesota, in the early 20th century.  Follow Betsy and Tacy from Betsy’s fifth birthday party, through all their school years, and into the first years of Betsy’s married life.  The books age along with the reader, each one increasing in length and vocabulary, so it’s an excellent way for readers to stretch.  They aren’t quite as famous as Anne of Green Gables or the American Girls series, but they have a deeply devoted fan base.

The third book in the series is Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill.  I know, I know, it sounds very Dick-and-Jane.  But it’s really a coming-of-age story, and the Big Hill is the symbol of their growing maturity.  Betsy, Tacy, and their best friend Tib are about to turn ten years old, which takes on monumental importance for them.  “It’s the beginning of growing up,” they insist.  This is the first book where the girls start to look outside themselves, to learn about other people and see things from another point of view.

When the trio take their picnic lunch over the Big Hill behind their homes, they discover a colony of Syrian refugees.  Suddenly this antiquated story has a very modern application for the reader.  Betsy, Tacy, and Tib befriend a young Syrian girl, Naifi.  Despite the language barrier, they learn about Naifi’s native clothing and food.  They learn how gender and education play a major role in the Syrian family life.  They are fascinated by the cultural differences between their Midwestern Victorian lives and these immigrants.

There is an undercurrent of danger in Little Syria, though.  The girls have heard tales of hate crimes and an old Syrian man with a knife chasing a local boy.  The founder of the colony resents the cold shoulder the townspeople give the Syrians.  The trio witness bullying at their school and what happens to those who stand up for the Syrians.  And their families are horrified at the thought of the girls in “that awful place.”  The girls try to reconcile these prejudices with their first-hand experiences.

Perhaps your daughter is facing the same concerns.  Children hear more than we give them credit for, and lately they’ve been hearing a lot about immigration, Syrian refugees, closed borders, and how to deal with “the stranger in our midst.”  Your daughter might be comforted to learn that these issues have been faced before, by girls just like them.

Ultimately, it is small acts of friendship and sisterhood that tip the scales.  Betsy, Tacy, and Tib develop a new understanding and appreciation of patriotism.  And the Syrians find their place in Deep Valley.

**********

There is another book in the series that revolves around the Syrian community.  It’s an off-shoot of the Betsy storyline.  Emily graduates high school (a few years behind Betsy’s crowd, so she doesn’t appear in their regular books).  Unable to attend college, the orphan girl feels isolated in her lonely house with only her grandfather for company.  She befriends a young Syrian boy and realizes that the Syrians are just as isolated as she is.  They badly need education, citizenship training, and friendship so they can integrate into the larger community.  Can shy little Emily take on the prejudices of an entire town?

Book Review: Beauty by Robin McKinley

Technically this is more of a young adult novel, but would work as a good bridge for students at the upper level of middle grade novels who are ready to stretch.  There’s no mature or objectionable content.  My best friend and I fell in love with book in middle school, before we ever saw the movie, so this has always been the definitive version for me.  I return to over and over, for comfort and inspiration, much like I turn to my best friend.

This isn’t Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  Beauty has two kindly sisters, and the village folk are friendly.  Instead of a swaggering town bully, Beauty’s admirer is a painfully awkward and completely forgettable young lad.  The castle is crowded with magic and disembodied voices, but no tap-dancing cutlery.  McKinley’s story was written long before the Disney version, and clearly provided inspiration for the strong, intelligent, self-sufficient heroine.

McKinley follows the classic story’s original format.  A wealthy merchant, a reversal of fortune, a selfless trade to save her father’s life.  Beauty befriends the Beast.  After a brief trip home, Beauty realizes the Beast’s good nature is the key to her happiness.  Voila, happy ending.  McKinley crafts a world that is familiar to us and yet uniquely her own.  The wealthy merchant has three daughters, Grace, Hope, and Beauty.  Grace and Hope are “lovely, with every eligible young man – and many more who were neither – dying of love for them.”  Grace is engaged to a ship captain, and Hope to a blacksmith; McKinley thus sets the stage for valuing character over worldly gain.

Then the ships – and Grace’s beloved ship captain – are lost at sea, and their fortune disappears.  Hope’s blacksmith sweeps them off to his family’s cottage in the distant forest to start fresh.  There is a quiet murmur of magic in the background, but its greatest feat seems to be that no one notices it.  Until the fateful night her father comes home from a trip, bearing a single perfect rose.  He tells of a magical castle, a fierce Beast, and a terrible offer.  Beauty doesn’t hesitate.

McKinley’s power lies in her superb craftsmanship.  The story unfolds slowly as a rose, and just as beautifully.  She describes the Beast’s enchanted flowers “as if each were a gem, and the polish of each facet the life’s work of a fairy jeweler,” and her writing is much the same way.  Each place seems real and yet beautiful, from the smell of the horse sweat to the whispering of silken skirts.

Interestingly, there is no real villain in this tale.  Beauty’s father loses his fortune not through greed, but the simple misfortune of sunken or missing ships.  The sister’s true love is torn away, again, by circumstance.  The Beast is never a threat, but simply a sad victim of his own actions.  There’s no pitchfork-and-torch mob, or even any hungry wolves.  If anything, Beauty’s only nemesis is her own introversion.  She enjoys the simple things in life – her horse Greatheart, her family, her books.  She likes the Beast, but doesn’t realize that he might be necessary to her happiness.

The pace of the story may be too slow for some readers.  There’s no exciting action or breathtaking suspense.  It’s a slow, thoughtful immersion.  Tween girls – let’s face it, the readers will be mostly girls – will identify with Beauty’s general awkwardness.  Beauty doesn’t match her name; throughout her growing years she is short and plain and even pimpled.  It doesn’t help that her sisters are achingly beautiful.  Beauty busies herself with books and horses, but she’s also the clever, capable one.  She’s the first to step up and tackle problems.  Beauty’s determined, thoughtful nature can be an excellent guide for young girls preparing to face the larger world.

Book Review: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

Ah, The Dark is Rising.  This is a classic story that hits all the right notes.  It follows typical Arthurian / Welsh mythology.  There is a young boy, his wise mentor, a quest for magical artifacts, an epic battle of good versus evil.  It appeals to every child’s sense that there is magic in the real world, just out of sight.

It is primarily plot-driven.  Will – the youngest of a dozen children – is already old for his age and does not mature much beyond assuming his new powers and responsibilities.  He lives in a quiet, modern-day (well, modern for the early 1970s) village that honors its ancient history.  On his 11th birthday, he learns that is the youngest member of the circle of the Old Ones, and must wield the powers of The Light to vanquish The Dark.

Sure beats an X-box.

His mentor is Merriman Lyon, the first of the Old Ones, who is incognito as the butler on the nearby manor estate.  The owner of the estate is The Lady, a wise and kind old woman.  She is the most powerful of the Old Ones, and serves as a guiding light.

Will is the Seeker – he must find four Things of Power (Cooper isn’t big on linguistics like J.K Rowling.  She cuts straight to the most painfully obvious name).  The first is the Circle of Six Signs, which are all mandalas representing the Light.  Will has to hop through time (although, conveniently, not through space) and face challenges to fetch each Sign.  If your child likes video games and apps, they will appreciate this task-and-reward system.

While there are certain protections around Will and his family (who have no clue about his true identity), they are in very real danger from the Black Rider, who is obviously a Dark One.  In olden times, the Rider wears a black cape and rides a black horse and can be as sneeringly evil as he pleases.  When he steps into modern times, he hides his villainous intent behind charming manipulation.  He wraps the village in the blizzard of the century to put the squeeze the Stanton family.  Everyone moves into the manor estate for warmth and supplies, demonstrating that charmingly British keep-calm-and-carry-on wartime spirit.

 

In the confusion, the Rider kidnaps Will’s sister, and Will must risk his life to save her.  I know it sounds like the classic scenario of the damsel tied to the railroad tracks while the villain twirls his mustache, and it kinda is.  But all the magic and mythology make it poetic.

 

Like I said, not much character development.  Evil people stay evil, and good people are good.  Will learns caution and discretion in handling his new powers and identity, but otherwise it would be hard to tell if he was 11 or 41.  The book relies on the classic plot and smooth story-telling.

 

This is actually the second book in the five-part series.  But it’s the best to start with, because it sucks you into the world and gets you invested in the struggle between the Dark and the Light.  The first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, is about ordinary children on the fringe of the great struggle.  It’s a good addition to the series, but not gripping enough to make the reader commit to the series.  It’s like C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew.  It technically comes first in the timeline, but you don’t need to appreciate the story, and it might actually ruin some of the suspense and surprise.  I recommend reading The Dark is Rising first, then Over Sea, Under Stone, and then continuing with the rest of the story. The ordinary children – siblings Simon, Jane, and Barney – join forces with Will in the third book, Greenwitch.

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