Ellen Booraem is one of Maine’s unsung treasures. Why it is unrecognized is a mystery. Maybe that’s because picture books tend to be the rock stars of the children’s book world — and Maine has more than its share of famous picture book creators. Booraem writes mid-level fiction. Caught between young adult books and picture books, this genre is like the middle child of publishing: often overlooked and underappreciated.
Booraem’s first three novels all won awards and praise from national trade publications. The highly respected Kirkus Reviews even did an article on her titled “One of the best children’s writers you’ve never heard of.” Maybe Booraem’s latest book will change that.
“River Magic” is fantasy, but it’s not idle fantasy. The story opens with a bang: we meet our heroine Donna, her annoying teenage older sister Janice, and their eccentric and much-loved aunt and mentor Annabelle. Who is drowning on page 2.
As the family struggles to cope with this tragedy, financial difficulties may force them to leave their riverside home and Donna to move in with hated relatives. The two sisters bicker constantly while their mother, a single mother, is exhausted from trying to make ends meet. On top of that, Donna’s best friend, who helped her through Annabelle’s death, is turned against her by a new girl at school.
Then a strange old woman called Vilma Bliksem moves in next door. And Donna begins to hear what she thinks is Annabelle’s voice in her head. Here, Booraem takes the reader into the world of fantasy. The new neighbor turns out to be a “thunder mage” (a wizard), and the voice in Donna’s head is actually that of the mage’s dragon, which lives in the river. Oh yes, and there are elves living in the garden. And enchanted gold. And chickens with human ears.
Booraem writes with a strong sense of humor and fantasy. The humor is dry Maine humor. “I don’t need gold. I don’t need dragons,” are the mage’s parting words. “I will work at LL Bean.” And the fantasy is fresh and never fairytale. There are elves, yes, and they live in fairy houses; but they are ragged goblins, covered in tattoos. Their idea of mischief is to turn ordinary chickens into spotted or paisley-colored chickens.
This side of the story provides comic relief for the most difficult real issues at the heart of the book – grief, loss and betrayal. In “River Magic,” the bonds that bind us — with friends, at home, and most importantly, between sisters — are tested, frayed, and ultimately renewed and strengthened.
Booream describes in painful detail the delicate and brutal dance of college friendship. When Donna’s best friend dumps her, she flirts with revenge, then makes a new friend, this one a boy (virtually the only male character in the book), derisively nicknamed Hippie Hillyard by her classmates for her eccentric mannerisms and gender-defying style. to get dressed.
The author has spent most of his adult life in Maine, working for two decades for local newspapers before turning to fiction. She gave “River Magic” a strong sense of belonging. At the heart of Donna’s life and history is the river. “You are a river girl,” notes a friend. It’s not just because the river is magical – “a twinkling seam of stars” – with its choppy waters and ley lines that make it a good habitat for dragons. He is inextricably linked to Aunt Annabelle and the house she helped build that Donna stands to lose.
But more important than friendship or location are the deep and often strained bonds between the sisters. The story explores three such relationships: Mim and Aunt Annabelle, strong women who help each other out in times of need; Donna and her sarcastic sister Janice, who becomes deeply protective of her when the going gets tough; and thunder mage Vilma, whose betrayal by her sister triggers the events that ensnare Donna’s family.
“River Magic” is fast-paced, with many moving parts and a large number of colorful characters. In general, this clutter serves the story well, enticing readers to turn the pages. In the end, however, things get a little chaotic as the “real” world in the form of policemen and game wardens suddenly intrudes into the world of dragons and goblins, and, rushing to iron out all the details , everything seems to happen suddenly. The result is an ending with a slightly too tidy feel.
A chicane. “River Magic” is a little gem. Perhaps it will help its author go from being unrecognized to being (in the words of children’s poet David McCord) “The singer, the song and the sung”.
Amy MacDonald is a freelance writer and children’s author. It can be attached to [email protected]
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