January 15, 2009


3 Willows: The Sisterhood Grows. By Ann Brashares. Delacorte Press. $18.99.

Parties & Potions. By Sarah Mlynowski. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     Teen readers who just couldn’t get enough of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and the Magic in Manhattan series will be delighted that Ann Brashares and Sarah Mlynowski, respectively, have returned to their super-successful series with these sequels. Some readers will be a bit disappointed – neither of these books is quite as good as the ones that came before – but many will be so glad to revisit familiar territory (with a few new twists) that they will be enchanted from first page to last. Brashares and Mlynowski write with laser-precise targeting of their readers, making both these books sure-fire hits.

     3 Willows, like the four Traveling Pants books, is all about sisterhood, although the capital-S Sisterhood of the earlier novels has graduated from South Bethesda High School and moved on in life – as readers (and fans of the two Traveling Pants movies) know well. So the new book, set in summertime, introduces a sort of next-generation sisterhood, about to attend the same high school: Polly, who is determined to create a more glamorous life for herself; Jo, juggling issues of coolness, summer work and a cute boy; and Ama, introverted and academic but stuck for the summer in an unpleasantly outdoorsy environment. Brashares gets deeply and rather obviously into the idea of roots, sprouts and growth in 3 Willows, opening the book with a life-affirming Walt Whitman quote, then introducing the story with her own comment on the strength of willow roots, and periodically starting a chapter with a willow-ish (if not willowy) thought: “It is said that the sound of wind through willow trees is the whispering of fairies into the poet’s ear. It is also said that the willow can uproot itself, stalk travelers, and mutter at them.” All this could easily become cloying, and sometimes it does, but Brashares manages by and large to avoid treacle by capturing the realistic ups and downs of the lives of young girls on the cusp of high school. For example, Jo gets invited to an after-shift party with the other servers, but realizes she feels bad for girls who are lower in the pecking order: “None of the bus girls were invited. But now that she had been asked, she felt sorry for Bryn and Lila. And she felt backwardly sorry for herself for every night before this one.” And Polly finds herself in competition with her mother, albeit not necessarily in a healthy (or healthful) way: “She felt a tiny spark of pride that she was good at losing weight when her mother struggled and failed at it. It was so rare to be better than a grown-up at something: Polly would take this thing.” It is the believability of Polly, Jo and Ama that makes 3 Willows such a pleasantly involving book, even though it lacks the magic of the Traveling Pants series. But this is the first of a planned three books – who knows what will turn up in the next two?

     There’s magic aplenty in Parties & Potions, followup to Bras & Broomsticks, Frogs & French Kisses, and Spells & Sleeping Bags. The fact that the new book’s title is not even slightly risqué could portend a lower level of excitement, but in fact Parties & Potions has all the amusing elements of the earlier books, and is just as stylish. At one point, for instance, Rachel is worried about being magically tested by another girl, Matilda: “What if I don’t qualify? What if I don’t really have magical powers? What if everything that’s happened in the last four months has been a figment of my imagination? What if I’m completely insane? Do insane people know they’re insane?” This is Rachel all the way. And she has some new elements of life to face in this book – boy elements. Having discovered that there is a thriving teen-magic scene at her school, Rachel also finds that some of those teen witches are male – warlocks, that is – and one of them, Adam, is devastatingly cute. But what does that mean about Rachel’s relationship with Raf, whom she adores but who can’t know she is a witch – something Adam knows already, and an increasingly important part of Rachel’s life? Unfortunately, the “which boy” theme is a tired one, even with witch-boy elements thrown in, and Parties & Potions lacks some of the zing of the earlier books now that there seem to be magical teens around every corner. Still, there are some clever new elements here, notably a witches’ debutante ball called a Samsorta, which gives Rachel and her sister, Miri, a chance to shop for such magical invitations as: “A sunflower, with the date, time, and place inscribed on the petals. Candles that, when lit, write the information in smoke. Fridge magnets that magically spell out the info.” Mlynowski keeps the book mostly light and therefore mostly enjoyable, and – not surprisingly – leaves open the possibility of more teen-magic tales still to be written.

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