A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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History, magic, foreign travel in exciting tween adventure.

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

Educational Value

Readers will learn a lot about daily life in Pakistan from the up-close-and-personal perspective of the American author, whose husband was born in Pakistan: phrases in Urdu; customs surrounding feast days; teen fashion sense vs. the "fundos"; and about air-conditioned malls where you can shop for salwar kameez and then go to McDonald's. Science is also important to the story, especially the study of butterflies, moths, and endangered species.  Also much discussed: The 19th-century British author Rudyard Kipling and his works, especially Kim, and the old-fashioned game the exquisite corpse, in which players who've only seen the last sentence of what's gone before take turns writing parts of a story.

Positive Messages

Love for family and friends; coping when things go badly, and appreciating  unexpected possibilities. Learning about cultures other than your own and having empathy for those whose lives and challenges are very different. Trying to do the right thing and live up to your responsibilities, often with clever problem-solving and help from others. Protecting endangered species and others in danger.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Protagonists Kai and Leila are appealing, relatable 12-year-olds dealing with believable issues: a falling-out with your BFF, a disappointing performance in a contest, trying to understand a new place and get along with new people. Kindhearted, curious, and smart, they're often a bit out of their depth, particularly as the magical book and its story draw them in, but they try to do the right thing, particularly standing by and protecting their loved ones and trying to right past wrongs. Except for one multigenerational family of villains, adult and kid characters are often quirky but loyal, dependable, and supportive. One adult character is living by less than honest means until he's transformed by love.

Violence & Scariness

A young character is terrified when her family's car is surrounded by scary-looking beggars. Much of the plot involves an old-fashioned game called the exquisite corpse. In one plot thread, a young adult character fakes her own death to escape a villain. In another, a casket factory and its history are intertwined with the town and its residents' lives; tween characters have scary graveyard adventures and make assorted unauthorized entries. Both protagonists encounter situations where people want to kill lovable animals; in one scene, a Chihuahua tries to bite one of the girls but only gets her pants leg. One 12-year-old character's father died when she was small.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic involves two 12-year-old girls, one in Texas and the other in Pakistan. Kai and Leila are each grappling with relatable issues: broken friendships, sibling rivalries, culture clash, and learning to get along with new people. Each discovers a book of blank pages called The Exquisite Corpse (the name refers to an old-fashioned game in which participants all write segments of a story, knowing only the last sentence of what's gone before), which soon draws them into a tale of 19th-century magic. Author Lisa Papademetriou (who has coauthored middle school and teen books with James Patterson) spins a lively, heartwarming, sometimes perilous tale packed with creepy elements (a graveyard! A casket factory! A character who fakes her own death to escape a villain!), appealing characters, scientific information, 19th-century history, and more than a few laughs. 

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What's the story?

Twelve-year-old Kai is spending the summer in Texas with her late father's truck-driving, hip-hop-loving great aunt, whose house is next door to a graveyard. Meanwhile, Leila, about the same age and fond of romantic stories, is having her own adventure, staying with her Pakistani dad's family in Lahore. Things get really interesting when each girl discovers a book titled The Exquisite Corpse whose pages are blank, until one girl impulsively adds a few words. Soon the book is writing its own chapters, with an occasional line or two from the girls, about a magic-obsessed 19th-century man, his violin-playing true love, and the evil guardian who threatens them. Sauerkraut, goats, butterflies, Kipling, and lots of surprising connections emerge in the ensuing TALE OF HIGHLY UNUSUAL MAGIC.

Is it any good?

This lively, funny tale from tween favorite Lisa Papademetriou delivers life lessons, spine-tingling adventure, and surprising connections as 12-year-old girls discover a magical book. Many a kid will relate to the non-magical issues that face the characters -- being dumped by your best friend, coping with a bully, trying to make sense of cultural differences -- and the benevolent forces that come into play as stories unfold and intertwine.

Some readers may find Papademetriou's helicopter-narrator tendency to jump in with side comments and explanations a bit much, but she manages a pretty irresistible mix of multiple cliffhangers, appealing characters, exotic adventure, and laugh-out-loud moments, such as this encounter with the local bully:

"Kai came from the big city, and she had a plan for almost everything. Her plan for people who wanted to rob her or threaten her was this: Make them think you're dangerously crazed. So when Pettyfer looked at her, she grabbed two fistfuls of her own hair and roared, then charged directly at him, screaming, 'Yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yiiiiiiiiiiiii!'

"Pettyfer fell over backward, scrambled to his feet, and took off, tripping over his enormous, expensive shoes."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about visiting another country. Have you traveled to any faraway places? What were the biggest differences? What was the same?

  • Why do you think books involving magic are so popular? Which others have you read?

  • Do you think the exquisite corpse game of taking turns writing a story sounds like fun? Try doing it yourself with a friend or sibling.

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love magic and multicultural stories

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