A Clatter of Jars

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Quirky blend of magic, issues, recipes in summer camp tale.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

One of the plot threads involves frogs, and readers will learn a lot about different amphibian species as tribes of frogs get involved. A much-repeated song verse in Spanish is helpfully translated. The significance is never clearly explained, but Lake and Camp Atropos, where the story takes place, appear to be named after the Fate whose role in Greek mythology was to cut off people's threads of life, causing their deaths.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about the bonds of friendship and family and even stronger ones about the importance of apologizing and trying to make things right when you do something wrong.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Wrongdoing, seeking forgiveness, and making amends are big themes in multiple storylines here -- which means a lot of characters do bad things with bad results before they learn better ways. One character is jealous and mean to her new stepsister; she's also caused an injury to her beloved brother and not admitted it to him. Another is so desperate to acquire his own Talent that he immerses his probably autistic brother, who's terrified of water, in the lake. There's a lot of stealing: One kid is a skilled pickpocket (though the worst thing he does with his ill-gotten money is buy his brother some candy before he gives the rest back). An adult character has been stealing Talents from kids for years. Before that, she broke up her sister's romance, with fateful consequences to several characters here and in A Tangle of Knots. Characters learn from their mistakes and from the kindness and forgiveness of others.

Violence & Scariness

In what's probably the book's most appalling scene, a tween character throws his autistic brother, who's terrified of water, into the lake and ducks him completely under the surface -- all so he can get a Talent for himself. Another character's special abilities lead to a huge bookcase falling on her younger brother, breaking his leg. An adult character's obsession with stealing Talents leads her to dump all the campers in the lake, even if they can't swim.


One reference to "morons." A character calls another's comment "stupid."

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that there's a lot of heavy stuff going on in Lisa Graff's sequel A Clatter of Jars -- broken families, blended families, sibling rivalry, jealousy, stealing, danger, and, in one awful scene, a character pushing his terrified brother underwater. The story marks a return to the magic-enhanced rustic New York of A Tangle of Knots and involves some of the first book's characters, as well as the issues that arise when some people have magical Talents and others don't. Graff dispenses life lessons galore along the way, particularly about apologizing, forgiveness, and reconciliation, some of which may get a bit cloying and preachy. Like A Tangle of Knots, Clatter is part magical tale, part morality play in which the characters more or less personify their issues, and part cookbook -- in this case, a collection of delicious-sounding summer drinks -- with a Spanish verse that's so important to the story it gets repeated over a dozen times. This odd mix will be a hit with some readers but won't quite work for many others, and some kids will find the scary stuff too intense.

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What's the story?

As the story opens, Cady, heroine of A Tangle of Knots, chooses not to use the unknown Talent stolen by her thieving grandfather but instead throws it, and the jar it's kept in, into Lake Atropos, home to a summer camp near Poughkeepsie, New York. This sets a series of fateful events in motion, and several years later, a group of campers, many with unique Talents and eventually revealed connections to the characters of Book 1, arrives at Camp Atropos for two weeks of fun. Little do they know the camp director has built a thriving business by stealing and selling the kids' Talents and that the magic's going to get pretty strange as it gets passed around. Many of the kids have issues of their own -- absent fathers, hated stepsisters, trying to be your own person (and have that person be someone you like) -- and do some terrible things: One girl caused the accident that broke her brother's leg but won't admit it; a boy forcibly submerges his brother, who's terrified of water, to get something for himself.  Meanwhile, down at the lake, there's A CLATTER OF JARS as the stolen Talents seem to take on a life of their own.

Is it any good?

A quirky, magical blend for some readers won't quite gel for others as author Lisa Graff piles tween issues and life lessons with Spanish verse, strange powers, and recipes for summer beverages. There also are lots of mysterious connections with the characters in A Tangle of Knots. There's a lot going on here, much of it showcasing the dire effects of misdeeds driven by jealousy, greed, and the like (including theft and violence). And while many of the issues (such as adjusting to a new step-sibling) are highly relatable to the tween audience, the characters who personify these issues (and who, in other Graff books, such as Lost in the Sun, would have the whole book to themselves to work each one out) often remain pretty one-note and cartoonish.

Lots of readers will love the magical treatment of Talents (including silly ones) gone astray, but many will find this all a bit muddled and contrived.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about forgiveness and how at some point we all need it. If you do something that hurts someone else -- even if you didn't mean to at all -- what do you think is the best way to try to make things right?

  • What do you think of the author including recipes? Does it makes a story better or does it distract from the plot?

  • In this story, as in others, some magical superpowers are more silly than awesome. What's the most ridiculous superpower you can think of, and how would you use it?

Book details

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For kids who love fantasy and family stories

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