April 26, 2012


The Sixty-Eight Rooms #2: Stealing Magic—A Sixty-Eight Rooms Adventure. By Marianne Malone. Illustrations by Greg Call. Random House. $16.99.

Oddfellow’s Orphanage. By Emily Winfield Martin. Random House. $16.99.

Magical Mix-Ups #2: Lawn Mower Magic. By Lynne Jonell. Illustrated by Brandon Dorman. Random House. $12.99.

Magic Tree House #47: Abe Lincoln at Last! By Mary Pope Osborne. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $12.99.

Magic Tree House Fact Tracker: Abraham Lincoln. By Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $5.99.

      Magic is a reliable plot driver in books for preteens, and even for younger readers.  It gets used differently by different authors, though.  Marianne Malone’s first book, The Sixty-Eight Rooms, used it within a real-world setting: the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago.  The rooms were designed by Mrs. James Ward Thorne and furnished partly with miniatures she bought and partly with furniture created by craftsmen in the 1930s and 1940s.  The rooms are a popular exhibit at the museum – but they contain no human figures, since Mrs. Thorne felt that dolls would not look as realistic as the rooms’ miniature furnishings, which reflect a wide variety of styles, tastes and eras.  Of course, the setting alone is not enough to sustain a book for ages 8-12, so Malone invented two sixth-graders named Ruthie and Jack, who saw the rooms on a school field trip – and discovered a key that let them shrink to hamster size so they could explore the rooms and learn their secrets.  Stealing Magic offers more of the same: someone is stealing objects from the rooms, so Ruthie and Jack have to shrink again and try to find the thief.  They must use the magic to journey in time as well as to change their size: they visit Paris in 1937 and Charleston, South Carolina, before the Civil War, in their quest for answers to the thievery.  Malone adds a sense of urgency to the story by having the magical key that shrinks and transports Ruthie and Jack be one of the items stolen.  But readers will know throughout the book that everything will turn out just fine in the end.  The plot here is more complex than in the previous book, there are more characters to follow, and the attention paid to the rooms themselves is somewhat less – which is a bit of a shame, since that makes Stealing Magic a more-ordinary preteen adventure.  Still, there is enough excitement here, and enough back-and-forth in time and space, to keep things interesting – and open the door (or, as the case may be, the box; the reference will be clear to readers) to yet another adventure for Ruthie and Jack.

      There can be plenty of books set at Oddfellow’s Orphanage as well if the first one catches on with readers.  This is the debut novel by Emily Winfield Martin, who is an Etsy artist – Etsy being a marketplace for handmade and vintage goods.  The most interesting thing about this book is the art: the characters look like samplers.  They are supposed to be highly unusual: for example, one girl has tattoos all over (benign-looking ones), and one boy has an onion for a head.  The orphanage residents are under the benevolent charge of Headmaster Oddfellow Bluebeard, “a distant relation of the more famous Bluebeard [who] is as gentle and kind as the other Bluebeard was cruel.”  The orphanage is filled with magical things, which readers learn about through the eyes of newly arrived resident Delia.  There are a child-sized hedgehog, a family of dancing bears, and children who are introduced with illustrations and brief background stories: “One winter evening, Oddfellow Bluebeard heard a tiny knock at the door.  Upon opening it, he found a girl with jet-black hair who was scarcely bigger than a small fire hydrant.  She was shivering and clutching a birdcage that held three finches.  The tiny girl [was] called Ava…”  The appeal of this book is a little difficult to pin down.  There are no real threats or adventures here – the intention is simply to interest young readers through a proliferation of charming illustrations and equally charming descriptions of such unusual classes as Fairy Tale Studies and Cryptozoology.  Delia does not speak – she communicates by writing and with gestures – and this helps provide the framework through which Martin can explain the orphanage’s procedures in detail.  For example, classes are cancelled when Haircut Day is scheduled, and Delia shows other girls how she wants her hair cut by pointing to the length of her braids.  The book is filled with warmth and friendship, but they seem rather thickly and inelegantly applied, and the whole thing has a manufactured feeling about it, as if it is designed to tug the heartstrings in a variety of specific ways.  Children charmed by the illustrations are the ones most likely to be equally pleased by the rather thin story.

      The magic is not in kids but in an object in Lawn Mower Magic, Lynne Jonell’s second story of the Willow family and the rogue (but never dangerous) magic in the Willow kids’ lives.  Like the first book, Hamster Magic, this one has a story that is straightforward, but with a magical twist: the Willows’ lawn mower stops working, so the family will have to use its savings for a new one – instead of letting Derek borrow the money to buy a train ticket to visit his old-neighborhood friend, Ben.  Then Derek and his siblings find an old, rusty push mower in the shed, and the mower has been soaking up magic for years, so Derek can use it to earn money for the visit he wants to make.  Problem solved?  Of course not – the problems are just beginning, because the mower is really hungry for grass after all those years of neglect, and Derek will need all the help he can get from Abner, Tate and Celia to keep it under control.  “‘It wants to mow,’ [Derek] said happily. ‘It wants all the grass it can cut.’”  Well, yes – in fact, Mowey wants to mow so intensely that it runs away from (and with) the kids.  But as soon as they are no longer trying to stop it, Mowey quiets down and contentedly clips the grass.  For a while.  But then there are more worries and misunderstandings until, at last, Mowey is stopped, Derek gets the ticket money, the Willow parents never find out about the magic mower, and all ends happily – a silly story, an easy read and a satisfyingly predictable conclusion.

      Magic moves predictably in the long-running Magic Tree House series as well, with #47 in the sequence containing the usual silly premise (Jack and Annie are searching for a feather to help save Merlin’s baby penguin) and the usual tidbits of history (the state of the nation at Abe Lincoln’s assumption of the presidency in 1861).  The book this time puts the tree house on the White House grounds, has Jack and Annie encounter the Lincoln children, then has them go back further in time to meet a boy called Sam who says he can arrange for them to meet Lincoln (who was too busy in 1861 to see them).  Jack and Annie do the usual chores of the time in which they find themselves, learn the usual lessons about how people used to live, and eventually do have their meeting with Lincoln after all – and get what they need for Merlin.  Abe Lincoln at Last! proceeds just as unsurprisingly as other entries in the Magic Tree House series, but of course that is a big part of the book’s attraction: parents will know just what to expect, and so will young readers already familiar with these books.  Mary Pope Osborne makes one common mistake here by writing that Lincoln “outlawed slavery” – that is not what the Emancipation Proclamation did; slavery was not abolished until ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865, after Lincoln’s death.  But she gets the basic facts right, and expands them, as usual, with the “Fact Checker” (in a series formerly called “Research Guides”) that she coauthors with her sister, Natalie Pope Bryce.  This is where families interested in additional information on Lincoln and his time will learn about “blab schools” (where students said their lessons out loud), the deadly disease called “milk sickness” (caused when cows eat a plant called white snakeroot), and the patent that Lincoln received for an invention that would make boats lighter when they got stuck (Lincoln is the only U.S. president who ever received a patent).  This “Fact Tracker” is essentially a brief biography of Lincoln, dovetailing from time to time with Abe Lincoln at Last!  It will give readers who enjoy the fictional adventure a solid introduction to the facts behind the story, and perhaps encourage them to read more about Lincoln, the times in which he lived, and the Civil War – even though real history has little enough of magic in it.

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