Middle graders, male or female, will be captivated by this book, but readers in that age range who like fantasy and magic, will simply love this story. From the first page of this Advance Reading Copy, I was engaged, and as I read, my lips curled into a smile. Although there are some fearful moments and times when the characters make some pretty foolish decisions, some serendipitous discoveries, and cause some major damage to exhibits they were exhorted not to touch, they and the story are wholesome, and the fearful moments are brief and resolve themselves quickly and without lasting issues.
The humor is gentle and feels true to life. There is just the right amount of silliness, secrecy and whimsy to fascinate a child. The author, Lissa Evans, has really captured the flavor of the ten-year-olds, in their conversations, mannerisms and deeds, as they try to solve a 40 year old mystery. Sometimes they do improper things, as children are wont to do, telling little white lies, even throwing caution to the wind and occasionally taking some pretty foolish chances. I wouldn't recommend that the children who read this story ever try to imitate anything these kids did, but the children who read it will love April and Stuart. Will these spunky children really discover the hidden workshop of the Magician, Teeny-Tiny Tony Horten, The Great Hortini, Stuart’s great-uncle who disappeared years ago along with his assistant?
Stuart is filled with a lust for life, but he also possesses the surliness of a boy who has been forced to move away from his friends, at the end of the school year, because his mom, a scientist, got a new job; he has no friends there, in Beeton, the town his father grew up in, and he has no prospect of making any until the summer ends and school begins again in his new neighborhood.
While going for a walk with his father, a crossword puzzle designer, they find the wreckage of the building that used to house his family business, Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms, and from there his dad begins to reminisce and tells him about his uncle Tony, a great magician! When they come across the wreck of his Uncle Tony's house, which has been empty for decades, Stuart is intrigued. His father had never told him about this part of the family. When they get home, Stuart, who is a curious child, has his interest piqued, and he gets his father's money box, given to his dad by his uncle Tony, and he finds a secret bottom with three pence coins in it.
From there the mystery takes off as Stuart seeks to find the clues which will lead him to the magician’s hidden workshop. On the way, he deals with many strange and magical occurrences, one of which is a disconnected phone which suddenly rings; he decides to answer. The person on the other end tells him the book he wanted is at the library. What book, he thinks? He hasn’t asked for any. The book, at the library, contains some photographs, and in each one, there is a picture of his great-uncle. Will these magical moments lead him to the clues he needs to solve the mystery? Can he do it alone? Fate intervenes in the form of one investigative reporter, April Kingley, who becomes Stuart’s partner in crime. She is one of a set of triplets, (the others being May and June), who are putting out a newspaper. They live in the house adjacent to Stuart’s.
When Stuart begins his investigation to find the missing workshop of his great-uncle, April is busy investigating him. It took a bit of convincing, but she has a very strong personality and eventually, in spite of his rude replies, wins him over and joins him in his effort. She is taller than Stuart which makes her very useful since he is very short for his age. Stuart has a really casual way about him, taking most things in stride. He is curious and loves adventure. He wonders often about his parents choice of name for him; They named him Stuart Horten, also known as S. Horten or Shorten, and then Shorty to teasing friends. April wears glasses and Stuart would like to be taller. These are regular, run of the mill, normal children with normal problems. They work together, helping each other to achieve their goal, each using the skills that overcome their handicaps of vision and height.
There is another heroine of sorts, in this story, an elderly blind woman and her guide dog Pluto. She is a sweet and kind lady who helps the children solve the mystery. Her sister was the magician’s assistant. The story wouldn’t be complete without its villains and Jeannie and her magic school student, Clifford, fill this role. She is a devious, bitter, rather unethical bully and he is fooled by her false promises.
This fantasy is very creative and well written. The characters are well developed. There are no missing pieces in the book; everything falls into place and is resolved. Reading this book, children will be inspired to dream, to believe that they can overcome their shortcomings, to think that the impossible might be possible and to believe that wishes might sometimes come true if you work hard enough to make it happen.
A wonderful part of this book is that the author has the child and father engaging in conversation without talking down to the child in baby language. The vocabulary is not your everyday garden variety, but when a word that a child would not readily understand is used, it is explained immediately after, either with Stuart questioning his dad or the author writing the definition into the tale. It is a marvelous story that will take the 8-12 year old boy or girl on a journey into a magical, mystical land of new experiences. It will let their imaginations soar.