A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic by Lisa Papademetriou.
Harper, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2015.
Modern fantasy, 297 pages.
Highly Commended by the South Asia Book Award.
Lexile: 710L .
AR Level: 4.9 (worth 8.0 points) .
Two girls, each living with extended family for the summer, find a book entitled The Exquisite Corpse, surprisingly blank until one writes in it. Then the book itself starts filling in a story, a story which has interesting ties to the real world, a story which both girls are anxious to read the ending to.
I generally dislike books with two narrators. Often one is stronger than the other, and the author struggles to give them equal screen time while keeping our interest in the story. However, when this method works, it can be very strong.
Highly Unusual Magic starts with Kai, who is staying with a quirky older woman, a distant cousin whom she calls Aunt. Leila is visiting relatives in Pakistan alone and realizing that she doesn’t speak the language, and knows little about Islam although her family is nominally Muslim.
Leila did annoy me a bit at first. She’s obsessed with Dear Sisters, a made-up series that could be a stand-in for Sweet Valley High, Mary-Kate and Ashley, Nancy Drew, or whatever other adventure/mystery series for girls was popular in middle school.
This is a bit ironic as Papademetriou herself coauthored a book in the incredibly popular Middle School series. Papademetriou is white, but her husband is Pakistani and their daughter is biracial like Leila. I think that accounts for the realism that caused her book to be commended by the South Asia Book Award committee.
As the book went on, I grew to like Leila. She feels caught between her two heritages and is struggling to navigate and integrate them. She has a profoundly gifted younger sister in her same grade. I’ve read a few books about gifted children, but not much about their siblings. Leila is also struggling to do the right thing, fit in, and handle the loss of her ex-best-friend. Her journey discovering her Pakistani heritage and learning about Islam was excellent as well.
To continue the quote from the header:
“With a white mother and a Pakistani father, Leila used to think that she was both. But Leila was beginning to realize that, in some ways, she was also neither. In other people’s minds, at least.” page 45
I was a little surprised by how dark this book was. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a middle grade book and not at all scary or inappropriate. But the cover and the blurb didn’t lead me to expect coffins and lung disease and so on. I expected a light and fun story of friendship through an unusual penpal system. However, there’s little direct connection between the two girls. This is not so much a story of friendship (although there is some) as it is about finding your place in the world and accepting who you are.
There is a slow burn to this book. It’s not action packed, and I’ll admit I set it down a few times in the early chapters, but the conclusion was very satisfying and there were moments of great beauty. I ended up loving the way the three stories intertwined without actually touching.
Spoilers I didn’t expect the twist ending regarding the two girls (the other twist felt fairly obvious). However I was delighted that they went through the entire book without meeting. That’s unusual. End of spoilers
Children who are very sensitive or very young might dislike the few mentions of death. The major characters are never in danger of their lives, and personally I did not find this book scary or horrific despite the occasional dark imagery, but it wouldn’t be the best choice for a child who’s recently lost a pet or had a loved one pass away. It’s aimed at the middle grade market.
It’s difficult to say whether Papademetriou left herself open for a sequel. I felt that there was room for another book to start at the ending, but the book also ended with closure, with all of the main storylines resolved. Certainly I would be open to reading future books by her, especially any featuring diverse characters. I’d recommend this book to middle school students who like stories of magic and friendship, and readers of any age who like nostalgic, old-fashioned fairytales with a modern setting and diverse characters. It was refreshing to read a story of modern-day magic that wasn’t completely whitewashed.