I discovered the British author Kate Saunders because I was drawn to the cover of her 2009 book, The Little Secret. The fantastic cover and interior illustrations by Bill Carman proved every bit as wonderful a discovery as the writing of Saunders herself. In The Little Secret, Jane finds herself shrunken and held captive in a miniature kingdom of fairies and elves that exists inside an elaborately painted box. In The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop, with great cover art by Tyson Mangelsdorf, the magic is all in our world, London to be exact. When we first meet eleven-year old twins Oz and Lily, it is the start of summer break and they are driving to 18 Skittle Street to check out the house that their father has inherited from his (long dead) great-uncle Pierre. The house was the workshop for the Spoffard Bros., Established 1927, with Uncle Pierre living upstairs. The family business was chocolate making, but not just any kind of chocolate, magical chocolate, run by triplet brothers, Pierre, Marcel and Isadore. The brothers learned the art of chocolate making from their father and from their mother, magic. It ended abruptly in 1938 when all three brothers died when the tram they were riding on crashed into the Thames. With a baby on the way, the Spoffard family moves into their roomy inheritance and the story takes off.
Their first night in the house Lily and Oz meet Demerara (a kind of golden, unrefined sugar and a brilliant name for a cat!) and Spike, the immortal cat and rat, who fill them in on the family history. It turns out that Marcel and Pierre were murdered by their greedy brother Isadore. The magical chocolate that the Spoffards sold did things like make you a better dancer, give you curly hair, give you a deeper voice or cure an illness. In their workshop, the brothers also experimented with chocolate creations that could allow pets to talk, which Pierre tested on Spike and Demerara. And, in secret, Isadore created an immortality chocolate that he also tested on himself and Demerara and Spike, who have been alive since the 1920s. Jealous and furious that the love of his life, Daisy, chose to marry his brother Marcel, Isadore's desire to be the sole proprietor of immortality chocolate brought about the downfall of the business and the end of his family. Suspicious of their brother's experiments, Pierre and Marcel hid their magical chocolate molds from Isadore before they died. Unable to make more of the immortality chocolate, even though he has already accepted a downpayment on the supply he sold to the Nazis, Isadore goes into hiding and spends decades trying to find those molds. Demerara and Spike remain in the empty workshop, guarding the recipe books left behind - and one of the molds. After catching Lily and Oz up on these dramatic events, they enlist the twins - along with the local witch, who turns out to be their new neighbor, eleven-year-old Caydon - to find the missing molds because it seems that Isadore is still trying to sell his immortality chocolate, this time to a group of terrorists known as the Schmertz Gang.
At this point, The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop takes an unexpected, very cool turn that I never saw coming. This is not your traditional fantasy story with magic and spells and fairies and ancient things. Think James Bond meets Roald Dahl and you have a great idea of how the rest of the plot of The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop unfolds! The children learn all this when they escort Demerara, in a cat carrier, and Spike, hidden in a backpack, to the M16 building where they are ushered into the offices of the SMU - the Secret Ministry of the Unexplained. Aside from all sorts of cool gear and magical accoutrements that allow the children and an SMU agent to go diving in the Thames in search of one of the golden molds, the SMU put a spell on parental types that keeps the kids' parents oblivious to the increasingly dangerous things they end up doing. The dive for the golden mold is successful, but, in an underwater attempt to steal the mold, Isadore ends up kidnapping Oz. From there it's a mad dash to find Oz, and an even madder dash for Isadore and Oz to run from the Schmertz Gang, who want their chocolate and are willing to blow things up to get it. Just when it seems like things will be put to right, Oz gets a vision of the future that changes everything.
While the plot details of The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop are creative and fantastic, Saunders excels in her the characters she creates. Oz is a modest, violin playing genius. Lily is is dyslexic, tired of being tutored and overly anxious about change. Demerara is a vain, bossy cat who likes to borrow Lily's nail polish and Disco Glitter Body Gel. Demerara, who is always hungry also accidentally swallows a magical cacao bean she is keeping safe in her cheek in preparation for a spell that causes her to grow to the size of an elephant. With Lily and Caydon on her back, she heads off down the street and straight into the local McDonalds where she proceeds to eat all the burgers and fries and do tremendous damage that has to be wiped from the minds of everyone in the vicinity by the SMU. Then there is the immortal Isadore. Grubby, unkempt and unconcerned when he first kidnaps Oz, Isadore gradually changes the longer he is around the boy. While the Schmertz gang are clearly the bigger threat, Isadore initial lack of concern for anyone but himself makes his change over the course of the story deeply rewarding - moving, even. And, while Spike and Demerara are infinitely entertaining in The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop, my favorite character has to be Edwin, the ghost elephant, who is kept in a cage in a hidden network of cellars filled with cages where the SMU keeps unexplained animals. Edwin, when he was alive back in the 1920s, was a very popular attraction and he even used to give children rides. When he died of extreme old age, he stayed in his cage. He never bothered anyone and no one very saw him, so he was allowed to stay until they needed the cage. At that point, he was moved to a cage in the SMU cellars, although he can go wherever he wants.
Other books by Kate Saunders available in the US
Source: Review Copy