Lilah (age 8 at the time) loved the first Upside-Down Magic book by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins. And I mean LOVED it. I appreciated the message and thought it was cute, but she loved it. I think she reread it immediately after we finished reading it aloud and asked regularly if the sequel was out yet. She repeated jokes from the book and said things out of the blue like, “Remember when Nory turned into the dritten? That was so funny!” I spent probably excessive amounts of time trying to figure out why I didn’t love it the way she did. It’s an easier reading level than say, the Harry Potter books, shorter (208 pages), and geared a bit younger, but there are similar series (the Imaginary Veterinary series by Suzanne Selfors is one) that I find immersive and engaging instead of plodding through. Naturally, after the sequel was out, we needed to reread both books after reading #2, giving me a chance to sort out where the series disappointed me.
In short, there’s so much potential, but the follow through is superficial, and that’s a shame, because the well-executed parts really shine. I’m not sure if it’s a problem of fiction-by-committee (three authors for 200 pages seems excessive), or a focus on the message (diversity is good; be yourself) at the expense of character development and world building. The message is a good one, and the series stands out in its diversity (both in magical ability and in race/background). The first book is told from the point of view of Nory, a Fluxer (Fluxing is one of five types of magic, involving changing into animals) whose magic is “wonky.” She tries to keep her magic under control for her audition for the fancy school where her jerk of a father is headmaster, but she turns into a dritten (dragon + kitten), so her father sends her to live with her Aunt Margo to go to the Upside Down Magic class at a public school in another town. This *inappropriate language redacted* not only refuses to talk to her, he’s forbidden her siblings to contact her as well. Yet Nory is barely bothered by this. She thinks about it a couple of times, but it’s not the huge looming presence in her life you’d expect.
I have so many questions about this world and the nature and history of upside down magic. There are five types of magic, and children first demonstrate their type around their tenth birthday. The next school year, they switch to magic school, where along with the usual school subjects they learn their particular type of magic. Until that time, I guess they just try to control their new magic? At schools with no upside down magic (UDM) class, what happens to kids with unusual magic? Are they sent away somewhere else? Are they left to struggle in their assigned class? This isn’t clear. Does type of magic and/or unusual magic run in families? Also unclear. They don’t seem to learn much about magic up through grade four, or be prepared for the possibility of unusual magic, so it’s unclear how unusual it is to fall outside normal parameters for a magic type. Ms. Starr refers to a time when unusual magic was revered, but there’s no explanation as to why this changed. The lack of worldbuilding is so frustrating.
The first book focuses on Nory getting used to the other UDM students and dealing with being called names by the normal students. She and Elliott, an upside-down Flare, decide to try to pass as normal and get out of UDM. In the second book, the point of view is split between Nory and Bax, a Fluxer who only turns into a rock. Splitting POV in a 200-page book makes things even more superficial. The main plot is a mystery: someone is turning things to stone at school and the UDM kids are suspected, so the resident mean girl starts a petition to get rid of the UDM kids as too dangerous. The solution proves to be fairly obvious (to me and to Lilah).
A secondary plot involves individual tutoring for the UDM kids, and this is where the potential of the series is really obvious. Nory and Bax are assigned to Coach, whose rah-rah attitude, obsession with Kittenball (the sport of young Fluxers; professional-level is Tigerball), and belief in healthy foods makes him a caricature at first. He’s excited about having Nory’s dritten on the Kittenball team and ignores Bax at first. But he quickly becomes a more nuanced character, with real insights and compassion for Nory and Bax. This character development stands out in the series, and by comparison other characters seem like sketches.
Lilah gives this book all the stars for creativity, but I’m rating it only okay. Maybe the third book will improve on the limited worldbuilding and lack of character development, but I’m not optimistic. Great idea and message, so-so execution.
Source disclosure: I purchased this book.