May 24, 2018


Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort. By Will Taylor. Harper. $16.99.

Elementals No. 1: Ice Wolves. By Amie Kaufman. Harper. $16.99.

     As scene-setters for new fantasy series, these books do a good, if formulaic, job of setting up their story lines and the worlds in which the events take place. Preteen readers will quickly be able to decide whether either book introduces characters and events worth following into the future, whether both do, or whether to look elsewhere. Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort has an intriguing premise and an interesting take on middle-grade friendships, in which one best friend seems to be growing up more quickly than the other until an unanticipated adventure brings them even closer together. Maggie has been missing Abby for six weeks of the summer, while Abby has been at Camp Cantaloupe – but the two friends do not quite connect when Abby comes home, because Abby now has a bigger circle of friends and is interested in more aspects of the real world than Maggie is. Despite the somewhat jarring rejoining, the two friends put up a couple of pillow forts – Maggie with enthusiasm, Abby initially more reluctantly – and then discover that they can magically travel directly from one to the other. As if that is not enough, they find that the pillow forts can be portals to places a great distance away, specifically to Alaska, where Maggie’s uncle is studying whales in a remote location. Soon the girls are visiting him regularly. But they are also running afoul of an organization they had no way to know about: NAFAFA, the suitable acronym of the oddly named North American Founding and Allied Forts Alliance. It turns out that there is a network of pillow forts all around the continent, but there are regulations and requirements for building and using them, and Maggie and Abby have been breaking all the rules. NAFAFA demands that the girls toe the line or their forts will be destroyed. And then it is Maggie who seems the more-mature of the two, refusing to accept NAFAFA’s demands at face value while Abby wants simply to go along with them. Then, to bring in the real world in ways neither girl ever expected, they find out on one visit to Alaska that Uncle Joe has been seriously injured. Now they have to reveal the secrets of their fort to others in order to save him – all the while trying to fend off NAFAFA, especially one megalomaniacal character. Will Taylor’s blend of fantasy and real-world events is a bit creaky here, and his efforts to be politically correct by having Abby’s father dating another man seem forced and unnecessary. So does the use of silver sunglasses by NAFAFA members. But the relationship between Maggie and Abby is well developed, and the girls themselves have sufficiently contrasting personalities to make them appealing to a variety of readers. The book’s ending is disappointing in being an overt cliffhanger: readers will have to wait for the next book to find out what will happen, and may be frustrated as a result. On balance, though, the strengths of Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort outweigh its weaknesses.

     Alaska is not the setting for Ice Wolves, the first book in a series called Elementals, but it certainly could be if the sequence were set on Earth rather than in the land called Vallen where it actually takes place. The story here is even more formulaic than is usual in middle-grade novels, and that is saying something. There is a land where there is magic. There are opposing forces known as Ice Wolves and Scorch Dragons – fire and ice, see? There are 12-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, who are very close. There is a ceremony at which it turns out that one twin can shapeshift to an Ice Wolf, the other to a Scorch Dragon. So the twins – are they even really related? – are supposed to be lifelong enemies. But they will not have it that way. And in this first book, Rayna, who has dragon blood, flees the Wolf Guard and is captured by the dragons – while Anders, who has wolf blood, must train at the Guard’s Ulfar Academy in order to learn about wolves and dragons and find a way to save his twin sister. Like Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort, this first Elementals book cares about political correctness – actually to an even greater degree, since the village of Holbard, where the story takes place, is known worldwide for being diverse, multicultural, and all that good stuff. Also like Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort, the first Elementals book ends with a cliffhanger that will have readers either eagerly awaiting the next installment or being frustrated at being told, after more than 330 pages, “This could be a beginning.” Perhaps, but the ending is rather predictable and, in truth, something of an anticlimax rather than a climax. In fact, the whole story is on the dull side, and Amie Kaufman cheats readers in several ways – for instance, the central notion of how close Anders and Rayna are must be accepted because Kaufman says so, not because readers ever see anything happening to show their bond. In truth, Kaufman seems more enamored of the diversity elements than of the story: she uses the whole “multicultural” thing to explain her created world and its mythology, in passages that are more interesting than, for example, the long sections about Anders’ schooling. Kaufman has written a number of books for teenagers, so-called Young Adult fiction, but this is her first book for younger readers. Unfortunately, it feels as if she oversimplified quite a few things in her effort to reach the target 8-12 age range.

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