________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 17. . . .January 8, 2016

cover

Upside Down Magic.

Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle & Emily Jenkins.
New York, NY: Scholastic (Distributed in Canada by Scholastic Canada), 2015.
196 pp., hardcover, $18.99.
ISBN 978-0-545-80045-7.

Grades 4-6 / Ages 9-11.

Review by Scott Gordon.

** /4

   
   

excerpt:

They reached the top of the hill. There was a red brick building with kids milling around it. Elliott stopped and waved at it dramatically. ďHere we are: Dunwiddle Magic School,Ē he said. ďAnd look, thereís Andres. Heíll be in our class for sure.Ē Elliott tipped his big hair head at a boy a few yards away, floating in the air. He was brown, probably Latino, Nory thought. He had shaggy hair and wore a stripy shirt. He was a Flyer, obviously, but he was much higher up than any beginner flyer Nory had seen. Every so often his body jerked forward. He flailed his arms. Around one ankle was a red rope. An older girl held the other end and chatted with her friends.

 

Upside Down Magic is set in Dunwiddle School, a magic academy. More specifically, it focuses on the Upside Down Magic class that is meant for those students unable to control their magic powers and perform magic the way itís supposed to be done. Readers are introduced to this world through the experiences of Nory. Nory is a fluxer someone who can shapeshift from human into different animal shapes (her classmates are flares able to control fire, flickers able to turn things invisible, and flyers able to levitate). Nory, however, is unable to control her fluxing and often turns into hybrid beings like drittens (a dragon and a kitten). As a result ,she fails the admission test to attend Sage Academy, the elite magic school where her father is headmaster and her siblings are students. In order to attend the Upside down Magic class, she is sent to live with eccentric aunt in Dunwiddle.

     The book follows the typical hero journey that has formed the basis of some our best loved stories, such as The Hobbit, Star Wars and Harry Potter. The heroine, Nory, is cast out from the ordinary world (her comfortable life at home with her family) and forced to navigate through new surroundings of the special world of misfit magicians. Along the way, there is a mentor (her aunt Margo) and allies (her friend Elliott, among others) and a raft of challenges and barriers to overcome. By the end, sheís grown and been changed by her experiences. Into this traditional structure, the authors have woven in a positive message about accepting learning exceptionalities (though, not a term they use) and that special education should be seen in a more positive rather than pejorative light.

     I am sure that this book will be liked by lots of readers, especially girls, in grades 4, 5 and 6. I doubt, however, that it will be loved by many. More than anything, the book feels generic. Now, itís true that this puts it in the company of much of whatís published today, but it doesnít take away from the fact that youíd somehow like it to be more than it is. Too often, books like these feel like theyíre driven more by the marketers than the writers. Iím sure that the research shows that female audiences of this age like animals, magic (thank you, Harry Potter), characters of a similar age and settings they can relate to. All thatís left is to build something that hasnít quite been done before around these elements. Rarely, however, does it feel as though all these parts add up to an enthralling (or even engaging) whole. I fully acknowledge that sometimes audiences of all ages want a nice story that isnít too taxing or terribly original to get lost in temporarily. I just worry about getting to the point where the only choices are between this generic tale and that one.

     Itís worth, I think, sharing a bit of personal experience with this book. My daughter, though not in congregated special education class like the one described in the book, does get extra support at school and I suspect is exactly the type of reader the publishers are hoping will relate to Nory and Elliottís difficulties and eventual realizations about themselves and their abilities. When the book arrived, she was excited and taken in by the dritten on the cover. She wanted to start reading it right away. Because sheís generally more reserved and reluctant about reading on her own, I was happy to let her dive in. The book proved to an appropriate reading level and the layout made it easy for her to read despite her dyslexia. About half way through, however, her interest began to dwindle. I tried to keep things going by reading a bit more of it to her. She found the hybrid animals interesting, but I donít think that was enough to hold her attention. Despite encountering similar school frustrations to the protagonist, I donít think she ever really saw herself in the book. In the end, she never finished it and wasnít intrigued enough with the story to even ask how it ended.

     Around the time Upside Down Magic got put down, we picked up Harriet the Spy. This wasnít a conscious decision to replace this book with one that many consider a classic it just floated into our lives as books sometimes do. Still, it provides interesting counterpoint. Both books deal with kids around the same age who feel different and ostracized because of that difference. Harriet, though, has considerably more edge to it: the language is more pointed, behaviour a lot problematic (though still realistic) and the consequences of stepping out of line a lot less gentle. In the end, though, Harriet somehow feels more honest and true to what itís like to be a kid than do books like Upside Down Magic that donít ever want to push audiences out of their comfort zone in any way. In many ways, the situations in Harriet the Spy are as far removed from my daughterís experiences as those in Upside Down Magic (a 1960s New York City, where 11-year olds roam free before, during and after school) and yet the narrative voice, the unpredictability of the story and the volatility of situations Harriet gets herself into kept her enthralled until the very end.

Recommended with Reservations.

Scott Gordon is a high school teacher-librarian and English teacher in Ottawa, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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