I know that I am a broken record when I start talking about the lack of creative, interesting stories being told in the chapter book format, but it really is a quantity versus quality situation when you scan the shelves. However, this has been a bountiful and exciting spring! First, the awesome Mega Mash-Ups, a DIY chapter book series from Nikalas Catlow and Tim Wesson debuted, then the markedly different but equally amazing (and desperately needed) The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case by Alexander McCall Smith hit the shelves. Now, rounding out this nicely diverse group, comes Magical Mix-Ups, a new series from two veterans in world of children's books who are new to chapter books. I am so excited to see Lynne Jonell, author of the fantastic middle grade trilogy that starts with Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat, and stand-alone The Secret of Zoom, and Brandon Dorman, the hardest working illustrator (and occasional author) in the world of kid's books, have teamed up to bring a new series to the shelves.
Fantasy can be a tricky thing in chapter books. Emerging readers often want something like the Harry Potter or Percy Jackson books they see their older siblings reading, but there are so many elements of those stories that either don't work or are not content appropriate for a first or second grade reader (I know there are many, many first and second graders out there who have read and enjoyed both series, but they are the exception.) I realize that there are severl series that employ magic as a plot device, from The Magic Tree House to Katie Kazoo, Switcheroo to the Beast Quest books, but only Tony Abbott's thirty-six book series (with eight additional special additions) The Secrets of Droon, comes close to capturing the fantasy worlds and adventures of middle-grade books. Now, with Magical Mix-Ups, Jonell brings us a chapter book series that is an echo of her middle-grade books, where there is an unexplained, seemingly ungovernable magic at play, mostly amongst animals, and the main characters have to figure out how to work with or around the magic. The unique plot, tone of the stories, the character development and the problem solving Jonell employs in these books makes them stand out among others in this genre. There are about twenty of Dorman's illustrations, most half page but some whole page, scattered throughout the book and, while I am used to seeing his work in brilliant color, his talents, especially when it comes to rodents, continue to shine and make this series even more special.
Abner, Tate, Derek and Celia Willow are four siblings who find themselves uprooted from their "comfortable neighborhood with houses jammed right up next to each other" and moved to a house in the country with "lots of room to run around. Woods! A river!" The enthusiastic exclamations of their parents don't make the move any easier for the kids for various reasons. Abner has long wanted a dog, but he and his siblings must first prove that they can responsibly care for a hamster. Abner, the oldest, is named after a relative who was a hero long ago and has his portrait in a museum. He feels the weight of his name and position in the family and takes things seriously, sometimes acting as the adult in the absence of their parents. Moving to this new environment just means more responsibility for Abner and possibly even less of a chance to ever get a dog. For Derek, the move takes him away from his teammates and the sports that he loves. No matter what he tries, he can't convince his siblings to play with him. We don't learn much about Tate, the oldest sister, in this first book in the Magical Mix-Ups series, but Jonell has planned a twelve book series, one for each month of the year that the Willow family is living in this new house, and each book will feature one of the four children. With book 2, Lawn Mower Magic, Derek gets the chance to spend a week back home with his old buddies, if only he can control a push-mower that has been soaking up magic for years. Book three, Grasshopper Magic, will feature Abner, and book four, Deep Water Magic, will be Tate's turn at main character duties. What I love most about the Willow family that Jonell has created is their diversity and her ability as an author to appeal to boys and girls of various levels of maturity and interest in her writing.
When Hamster Magic beings, we find Celia, the youngest Willow and star of this show, about to cry, staring at the open door to the cage of Hammy the Third. Abner is upset because he knows now that he and his siblings will never prove to their parents that they can care for a dog now that a third hamster has gone missing. Celia is upset because she knows it was not her fault this time and that no one will believe her and because Hammy the Third was her favorite. Unlike Hammy the First, he did not "hide and snuffle under a cloth all day long." Unlike Hammy the Second, he was not "stupid enough to walk off a table when she let him out for a little exercise." Hammy the Third was different. In fact, the kids found him in the basement of their new house hiding behind a giant bag of Woofies dog treats the previous owner had left behind and somehow, he just seemed smarter that the other hamsters she had known. In fact, Hammy was so smart that Celia had been teaching him to open his cage. When Celia goes off to hide and cry by herself in the dark storage space under the stairs so that she won't be called a baby yet again by her siblings, she discovers Hammy trapped in a suitcase. And he talks. After a bit of cajoling and threats to return him to his cage, Celia convinces him to talk to her siblings as well when she tells him he owes her three wishes.
Turns out Hammy only owes Celia one wish for saving his life and it must be approved by the Great Hamster. The kids spend quite a bit of time dreaming of all the marvelous things they might wish for when Hammy finally lets them know that they have to make a "Hamster Wish," which is something that a hamster would wish for. However, before the Willows can figure out how to make this work for them, Celia wishes to be big, hoping to be older and bigger than her siblings, and ends up a giant hamster instead. How the kids keep her hidden from their parents and wrangle with a rather indifferent and unhelpful (and depleted of magic for the time being) Hammy as they try to figure out how to make her human again is very funny and exciting. A few clues from Hammy, before he goes silent, lead the kids to believe that they might find the Great Hamster by a cottonwood tree and a sandy patch near the river that runs past their house and the kids head down there undercover of the night, the newly nocturnal Celia romping about gleefully. The Great Hamster explains that there is magic in the ground surrounding Hollowstone Hill, a magic that seems to infuse the burrowing animals who live there, although she can't provide many more details for the curious kids, saying, "Who knows? Who cares?" When things seems to be at their worst, Abner comes up with a plan that just might save Celia and involves all the burrowers of Hollowstone Hill and the giant bag of Woofies dog treats.
If this sounds like A LOT of plot for a chapter book, it's because Lynne Jonell is a fantastic writer. I am sure that this new series will hook many new readers, boys and girls, for years to come. Book 2, Lawn Mower Magic is out now in hardcover. Hamster Magic is in paperback.
For those of you with readers who can handle a fourth grade level book, be sure not to miss the marvelous Emmy trilogy with art by the superb Jonathan Bean and the super-cool flip book he created along the edge of the pages in the books. You can read my review book one by clicking here.