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Here there be dragons – ‘River Magic’

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There’s wonder in water.

Whether we’re gazing across a mirror-smooth lake or bouncing over crashing ocean waves or simply skipping stones across a swiftly moving stream, we find wonder in water. There’s a quiet power to it, an energy that is as undeniable as it is indefinable. There is joy and knowledge and yes, there is magic.

Maine author Ellen Booraem offers up some of that wonder in her new book “River Magic” (Dial Books, $16.99), her latest offering for younger readers. This fantasy tale – aimed at readers 10-12, but accessible to readers on either side of that range – is a story of what happens when magic intrudes on real life. It’s a story about grief and loss and the many ways – some healthy, some not so much – that we deal with those feelings.

It’s also about thunder mages and dragons, a story of inadvertent adventure that celebrates the meaning of family and friendship even as it offers wild weirdness aplenty.

Donna’s having a tough time of it. She’s just 13 years old, living with her older sister and her single mom in a house on a river in Maine. She loves the river, even as she resents it – her Aunt Annabelle, her mom’s sister, drowned in a tragic kayaking accident. Now, money is tight as Donna’s mom tries to do everything she can to keep their home together and their lives on track.

It’s not just at home, though. Donna and Rachel were best friends not so long ago, but it seems as though these days, Rachel’s more interested in hanging out with her new friends on the basketball team than she is in spending any time with Donna. And so, Donna is left to work through her ongoing grief more or less alone – her mom’s too busy, her sister’s too angry and her best friend is too absent.

And then she starts hearing a voice in her head. It’s a voice that knows a lot about her and about her life. She has some theories about the voice and who it is, but she can’t be certain.

Things get even more strange when a new neighbor moves in, a cantankerous old woman with a lot of extremely odd attitudes. But Donna sees an opportunity and gets herself hired to help clean the woman’s house; it’s a chance to forget her troubles and make a little money to help her family. And when she discovers that the old woman pays in gold? Things are looking up.

Of course, Rachel and her new basketball friends are still making fun of her at school. The weird boy with the hippie parents has started turning up a lot more often. Her older sister continues to be a jerk and her mom keeps on worrying. Plus, that voice is still present in her head, raising far more questions than it ever answers.

Not to mention the dragon.

When trouble looms, Donna is forced to deal with the barriers between her and those around her – those that have been built around her and those that she has built herself – in order to protect the ones about whom she cares the most. She will find herself with some unlikely allies as she does whatever it takes to save the day.

Now, while “River Magic” is clearly intended for a younger audience, there’s no disputing that it will work for older readers as well. Heck, I’m a good 30 years past the “recommended” age range and I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s quite a balancing act struck by Booraem here – it’s not too sophisticated for the target audience, yet it’s still narratively engaging in a much broader sense. I do my best to avoid literary snobbery, but books like this do a great job of reminding me that good storytelling is good storytelling, regardless of who the story is actually “for.”

And this is good storytelling.

Young readers will be swept up in the adventure here, of course – there’s transmogrification and dragons and all manner of magical happenings – but they will also be engaged by some topics that will likely prove far more familiar. Struggling with grief after a loss. Growing apart from some friends and making new ones. Doing what’s right in the face of fear. These are all relatable lessons, even when couched in the trappings of fantasy.

There’s real craft here, a wonderful sense of wonder that brings to life a quiet corner of the world suddenly set ablaze with magic … even if it is a magic that might well have been there along. It is that magic – that wonder – that makes this book so appealing, even to a (relatively) cynical (relatively) old reader such as myself.

“River Magic” is a lovely read, a work that takes advantage of its fantastical trappings to tell a very real story about what it means to be a kid. Problems big and small alike loom so much larger when we’re younger; this story shows kids that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed and that their feelings are valid, all while offering up the highs and lows that come with magical encounters.

There’s wonder in water – and Ellen Booraem wades right on in.

Last modified on Tuesday, 27 April 2021 06:30

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