by Maile Meloy
What if "magic" isn’t really some mysterious force but a precisely created chemical reaction in matter? Sounds pretty sophisticated, but when Janie is forced to move with her mom and dad from Los Angeles, California to London, England she finds out that these scientific combinations are exactly what magic is made of; magic is very real, very possible, and not that complicated. Together with her newly made friend, Benjamin Burrows, the apothecary’s son, the two stumble across magical formulas that embroil them in an international plot to test an atom bomb, and a spy adventure that rivals Spy Kids and James Bond!
There isn’t a character in this novel that comes off as flat or boring, no matter how minor. Janie’s parents are the kinds of parents every kids wants, caring, creative, in love, but not too overprotective of Janie. Sarah Pennington, Janie’s arch-nemesis, could be your typical prep school snob, but she has a penchant for bad boys, even if they are poor. And then there is Pip! Pip, a character added in obvious homage to Dickens’ Great Expectations, lights up every scene he appears in with his hilarious jokes, cockney accent, pickpocketing and smooth-talking ways. The adults aren’t starchy cutouts either. Mr. Danby, Jin Lo, Benjamin’s dad, even the Gardner all have motivations and pasts. Add these characters, among others, to the mix with American Janie and earnest Benjamin Burrows, and you have a tale that captures the reader even before the author adds action to the mix. And oh, the action! The chapters are very short, and each chapter ends with a cliffhanger, often in some strange but interesting locale. Readers will worry about Janie and Benjamin, and yes, Pip too. Will the troublesome threesome survive as they spy on dangerous criminals who wouldn’t hesitate to kill kids? Will the children learn the secrets of the apothecary’s potions? Will Janie ever make it back home to her parents?
If you like audio books, I would highly recommend listening to this one. The narrator, Cristin Milioti, seamlessly switches between American, German, Russian, Norwegian, Chinese, British, and Cockney accents without stirring the awareness of the reader that it’s a dramatic reading by only one person, not a team of actors creating the narration. With such varied voices, this must be incredibly difficult to do. FYI, this book was on The American Library Association’s Notable Children’s Recordings of 2012 lists—clearly a commendation well earned.