November 28, 2015

Upside-Down Magic

by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle and Emily Jenkins
Scholastic Press
208 pp.
Ages 8-12
October, 2015

Self-acceptance has always been an important theme in picture books, middle grade and YA, as it is an issue so many of us grapple with, no matter what age.  But, while Upside-Down Magic does take on this common issue, the book’s quirky take on it is wholly uncommon and delightfully light-hearted.  

Elinor Boxwood Horace, called Nory, is ready for Grade 5 but not sure whether she is quite ready for Sage Academy where her father is headmaster and her older siblings, Hawthorn (16) and Dalia (13), study magic.  She attends the compulsory Big Test, the entrance exam, in which she is tested for being a Flare (those gifted with fire magic), a Flicker (those who control invisibility), a Flyer (as you might expect) and a Fuzzy (those conversant with animals), gifts she knows she does not have, as well as for a Fluxer.  Nory knows she is a Fluxer, one who can transform herself, but her magic often goes wonky.  Sadly but not surprising, Nory’s black kitten transformation actually becomes a dragon-kitten, or dritten as she calls it, and she is denied admission to Sage.

Without her knowledge, her father makes arrangements for her to go and live with her Aunt Margo, a Flyer who works as a taxi (!), and attend the Dunwiddle Magic School, a public magic school with a new program for kids who struggle with magic.  Special education for magic?  It’s called the Upside-Down Magic class or UDM, and it is sneered at by the other students in the school.  Her classmates include Elliott, a neighbourhood Flare whose fire often turns into freezing ice; Andres, a Flyer who would just float away if not tethered or held back by a ceiling; Pepper, an Upside-Down Fuzzy known as a Fierce who terrifies animals rather than communing with them; Sebastian, a Flicker who can’t become invisible but can see invisible sound waves; Willa who can make it rain inside; Marigold who shrinks things; and Bax who Fluxes but only into a rock from which he cannot change back.  Under the tutelage of the inspiring Ms. Starr, who encourages them to understand their feelings, not control them–“Helping you be normal isn’t my job” (pg. 129)–Nory tries to be positive about learning, but the prejudice she and the others endure because of their UDM has her determined to get control of her animal selves and get tested out of the UDM class.

Though her father refuses to contact her and her siblings are convinced she just needs to work harder, Nory is determined to become the child they want her to be, regardless of the warm welcome and acceptance she feels from her aunt, her aunt’s boyfriend and her UDM classmates.  It takes a bit of effort and some unusual situations to help Nory release the notion that she is imperfect and recognize her own giftedness as it is.

Montreal-born Sarah Mlynowski, whose Whatever After and Magic in Manhattan series are wildly popular, has collaborated with Americans Lauren Myracle and Emily Jenkins (a.k.a. E. Lockhart) to produce another series that is sure to enchant and humour young readers.  It’s delightful escapism for middle-grade readers who want to enjoy a very visual (see Nory’s dritten as imagined on the book cover) story with a completely impossible (improbable?) plot that can still teach about enduring the day-to-day challenges of being different and of family expectations, as well as of prejudice, and learning to accept oneself.  Upside-Down Magic is like a pretty package of life lessons wrapped up in a sparkly plot and decorated with bright characters of magical personalities. 

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