Review: On These Magic Shores

“It wasn’t my job to provide food, toys, or dress-up clothes for my sisters, but I felt ashamed that someone ended up giving them what my mom never could although she worked so much.” page 212

On These Magic Shores by Yamille Saied Mendez.
Tu Books, Lee and Low, New York, 2020.
MG fantasy/contemporary, 278 pages.
Lexile: not yet leveled .
AR Level: 4.8 (worth 8.0 points) .

Minerva Soledad Miranda (call her Minnie, please) just wants to fit in as much as possible, but it’s not easy to keep up with seventh grade, let alone audition for the school play, when she has to watch her sisters while her mom works two jobs. It’s hard to focus when they are crying from hunger. And it’s especially difficult when Mama suddenly doesn’t come home.

On These Magic Shores by Yamile Saied Mendez.

As soon as this book arrived, it stood out because of the unusual format. I bought the hardcover, but it’s smaller than any other MG fantasy on my shelf, sized more like a softcover novel. The blurbs were also impressive for a first edition of a new author’s book from an imprint with less than 50 releases.

Tu books is a MG/YA focused imprint of Lee and Low which publishes mainly genre fiction. Their historical fiction has a good reputation, but they’ve only published one other middle grade fantasy novel so far. However, they have a schedule of intriguing books coming up over the next few years, starting with this story of fairies and hardship.

First, just a note to apologize. I’m aware that the author’s last name includes an accent, but with the new version of WordPress, I have not been able to type special characters. No disrespect intended, simply a technical failure here.

This is a fantasy novel for readers who enjoy contemporary or realistic stories – the magical elements are frequently vague and the driving force of the story is the suspense over how long Minnie can keep her sisters together and what happened to their mom. However, like any young girl, Minnie’s own desire is not to care for her siblings and keep the family afloat – that’s just what she has to do to survive.

No, Minnie has political ambitions which begin with staring in her school’s play – a sure fire ticket to the class presidency. The only problem is that her school traditionally puts on Peter Pan, complete with a very problematic depiction of Tiger Lily. Oh, and her mother is missing, leaving her to care for her younger siblings while trying to keep other adults from realizing their mother is gone.

I had mixed feelings about the play aspect of this. On the one side, there are some schools that still put on very stereotypical performances of Peter Pan, and the pushback Minnie gives could be helpful for young readers who want to discuss alternatives with their own teachers. On the other hand, I wondered if it was necessary and worry that the inclusion of that subplot will date the book.

Just about every other aspect was perfectly written. At first I, like Minnie, thought the fairy magic wasn’t real (mild spoiler but yes there is magic and odd events that are never truly explained). Both Minnie and her sisters felt entirely believable to me. In particular, her heavy responsibility wasn’t handled by just writing her like an older character. Instead she acted very much the way a parentified preteen would – sometimes making mistakes, being childish, or misunderstanding, but also sometimes mature beyond her age and able to problem solve creatively. She can be mean to her sisters (especially when they are misbehaving under her watch) but also clearly cares deeply about them.

Saied Mendez writes the desperate choices of poverty with a deft touch. At one point the sisters receive gifts from another adult. It’s a bittersweet moment for Minnie, as she expresses in the header quote – while she’s happy for them, she’s old enough to recognize the unfairness of the situation. Saied Mendez is also careful to highlight that the family’s ethnicity is not the cause of their problems (although immigration status and racism don’t help), by including other Latine characters who don’t have the same struggles.

In her mother’s absence, Minnie is left making the wrenching decisions instead. Does she skip school to watch her youngest sister, or leave her at a place that seems unsafe? Should she use some of the utility bill money for food? Do they have room in the budget for anything else? The magical fairy aspect of this book is absolutely necessary for taking some of the edge off these realistic difficulties.

Without giving away the ending, I found it surprising (in a good way). Mendez took the story to a place I didn’t expect, but which made absolute sense. It’s unusual for middle grade stories to sneak up on me like that, so I was impressed. Although the fantasy aspects of this novel were less crucial to the plot than I expected, I still enjoyed the read and will definitely be looking out for more from Tu books.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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