Upside-Down Magic

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Upside-Down Magic Book Poster Image
Laughs, life lessons in magical-misfit series start.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Contains a lot of gentle wisdom about dealing with the perils of middle school.

Positive Messages

Strong, matter-of-fact acceptance of diversity -- Nory is biracial, and both kid and adult characters are complex individuals whose varied ethnicities and different abilities are only part of who they are. Strong messages of friendship, helping each other, and respecting one another's differences. In one scene, Principal Gonzalez lays down the law to one of the kids' tormentors:

"'Would you like being mocked for your glasses, or for anything else that separates you from others?'

"Lacey swallowed and shook her head.

"'I did not think so.'

"'I have to wear them,' Lacey said. 'They're prescription.'

"'I will not tolerate bigotry,' said Principal Gonzalez. 'I will not tolerate unkindness about race, gender, orientation, family background, religion, weight, magical abilities, favorite candy, or anything else that distinguishes one person from another. Not here at Dunwiddle Middle School.'"

Positive Role Models & Representations

Nory is highly relatable as she struggles with assorted challenges and tries to figure out the right thing to do. She and her classmates in the Upside-Down Magic class soon form a bond that helps them all. Her aunt Margo (whose magical power is not only flying but carrying passengers in flight) is a strong, kindly figure who stands up to Nory's cold, distant father and takes good care of Nory; Principal Gonzalez and Ms. Starr the teacher are also kind, clever, and strong in their support of the "upside-down magic" kids.

Violence & Scariness

Assorted, mostly funny mayhem involving magic gone awry, from destroyed furniture and books to a scene where Nory's skunk half lifts its tail and sprays some girls. A mean prank nearly causes the death of one of the kids, but his friends come to the rescue. Nory's mom died when Nory was little.

Language

Lots of mostly comical references to poop, especially as a side effect of Nory's transformation into less-than-house-trained critters.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Upside-Down Magic is the first installment of a new series from bestselling-author collaborators Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins about middle schoolers grappling with magical powers that don't quite work as planned -- powers that land them in what female protagonist Nory describes as "a particular class for the worst of the wonky." Reluctant readers and kids who get hassled for being "different" will like this fast-moving tale for its relatable issues, appealing characters, and plentiful humor, some of which involves poop, especially from some of Nory's more out-of-control transformations. A mean prank puts a kid in serious danger, but his friends save the day. This is a fine choice for families looking for books with diverse characters; Nory is biracial, and racial differences among the kids are treated matter-of-factly. The middle school principal takes a firm stand against bias and bullying: "I will not tolerate unkindness about race, gender, orientation, family background, religion, weight, magical abilities, favorite candy, or anything else that distinguishes one person from another."

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What's the story?

Ten-year-old Elinor Boxwood Horace, who goes by Nory, is hard at work practicing her magic for the entrance exam at Sage Academy, an elite school for kids with magical powers. It ought to be easy -- after all, her older siblings are doing great there, and her father is the headmaster. Unfortunately, every time she tries something perfectly simple, such as turning into a kitten, some other critter gets into the act, and when she turns into a half-dragon/half-kitten, aka dritten, she flunks the test big-time. And not only does she have to move in with her aunt Margo and go to public school, she's stuck in the UPSIDE-DOWN MAGIC class for kids whose magic is a bit off. Classmates include airborne Andres, who floats above the ground; Pepper, whose "gift" involves terrifying everyone; and Elliott, who freezes things instead of setting them on fire. All she can think of is becoming "normal" so she can leave the class behind and go back to her family -- but when the chance comes, will she take it?

Is it any good?

Best-selling authors Mlynowski, Myracle, and Jenkins deliver crowd-pleasing elements like slapstick humor and heartfelt emotions in a tale of middle schoolers whose powers are a bit different. Nory's hilarious misadventures (let's just say drittens, bittens, skunkephants, and other creatures have a lot of fun making a big mess, which Nory then has to deal with), her struggles to fit in, and her discovery of new possibilities will keep the pages turning and will resonate with just about every kid whose life isn't 100 percent perfect. With a sequel already in the works, there's more to look forward to.

Upside-Down Magic also gets points for its matter-of-fact, non-preachy handling of diversity: The characters' ethnicities are as varied as their magical powers, which is mentioned briefly and not belabored. "Why are you black when your aunt's white?" Nory's new friend asks. "My dad's black. My mom was white," she says, and that's pretty much the end of it as they get on with the story.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about being different in some way -- and why some people use others' differences as an excuse to be mean to them. Do you know any examples among the people you know?

  • Stories about kids with magical powers are pretty popular. How does this one compare with others you've read?

  • If you had a chance to do something you really wanted, but it would involve leaving all your friends behind forever, what would you do?

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For kids who love magic and stories of friendship

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