Book Review: “Upside Down Magic” by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, & Emily Jenkins

In the world of Upside Down Magic, all children begin their magical training in the fifth grade. Luckily for Nory, her father is the headmaster of the best magic school around – Sage Academy – and her older brother and sister always ace their magic classes. Unluckily for Nory, her out-of-control magic means that she flunks the entrance exam for Sage Academy, and instead has to attend a special class at public school for students whose magic is a little…wonky.

But they prefer the term “upside down” – “wonky” is a little rude. Soon Nory finds herself in a classroom full of students whose magic doesn’t work quite the way it’s supposed to. Andres is supposed to be able to fly…but he isn’t able to come down. Pepper is supposed to be able to charm animals…but they’re all terrified of her. Elliot is supposed to be able to set things on fire…but he can also cause them to freeze. Nory can change into different animals, but instead of transforming into normal ones, like a kitten, she always ends up as something odd – like a dragon-kitten-beaver. Can Nory and the other students accept that “different” doesn’t mean bad?

This Early Reader/Middle Grade novel takes the typical format of a school days series (like Ramona or Diary of a Wimpy Kid) and gives it a fun little twist with the often amusing magic that Nory and her friends can work. For young readers who are fantasy enthusiasts, eagerly reading J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan, Upside Down Magic is likely going to be disappointing, as the story focuses more on Nory’s self-acceptance and classroom experiences (making friends, being bullied, etc) than actual magic.

However, that just might make this the perfect read for kids who aren’t interested in exploring fantastical worlds, but prefer to stay a little closer to home. The magic in this book has the benefit of being kind of absurd, sure to get laughs out of its readers, and I appreciated the diverse cast of characters in the Upside Down Magic (UDM) classroom – although it’s a shame that Nory, who’s of mixed heritage, only appears in kitten-dragon form on the cover of the book.

Two moments in this book really stood out to me. The first is when Nory is first introduced to Elliot, a neighbor and fellow UDM student and, in the honest way of children, he asks her why she’s black if her aunt is white. Though this experience is a well-worn one for most mixed kids, it’s not an issue that appears in too many children’s books. I appreciated this moment of realness, present as part of Nory’s experience but not the main focus of the book.

The next moment comes a little later on, in a speech from Principal Gonzalez: “I will not tolerate bigotry. I will not tolerate unkindness about race, gender, orientation, family background, religion, weight, magical abilities, favorite candy, or anything else that distinguishes one person from another. Not here at Dunwiddle Magic School.” Okay, yes, this is a bit didactic for more seasoned readers, as blatantly put as a Berenstain Bears book about why stealing is wrong. But it’s a message that kids need to hear, one that should be as frequent and tired a message in children’s books as learning to share. That list of attributes – and that big word for young kids, “bigotry” – are ones that children should be familiar and comfortable with so that we can start training a generation to be more loving and accepting than our own.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review.