I recently enjoyed listening to the audiobook of Upside-Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins, a book for younger middle-grade readers. At first, I thought it might be just a fun little story about a magic school, but it turned out to have more depth than I expected and tackled some important topics for kids….in a very fun way.
Nory is nervous about her Big Test, the entrance exam for Sage Academy. For starters, it is the most prestigious magic school around, and she desperately wants to start 5th grade there in the fall, following in the footsteps of her older brother and sister. Plus, her father is the headmaster. In Nory’s world, kids go to regular school through 4th grade, but since magic skills usually start around age 10, everyone starts at magic schools in 5th grade.
There are five different types of magic, according to your natural abilities. Some kids, like Nory’s older brother, are Flares and can create fire. Others, like her sister, are Fuzzies, and have talents for attracting and working with animals. There are also Flickers and Flyers and Fluxers, like Nory. Fluxers can turn into different kinds of animals. The problem is that Nory doesn’t turn into regular animals; she turns into her own creative combinations, like the beaver kitten that chewed her father’s office up while she was practicing for her test.
The test for Sage Academy requires that Nory turn into a kitten – just a plain, cute, black kitten, not a beaver kitten or a bat kitten or any of the other wild combinations that happened when Nory practiced. The kids all say that Nory’s magic is wonky, and when she is put into a special Upside-Down Magic class at a regular magic school, she figures it means that she is in a remedial class. Her new teacher, though, has other ideas. She wants to teach the kids in her class to embrace their differences and learn how to perfect their own unique brands of magic.
Although Upside-Down Magic is about a magic school for kids, this sweet, funny novel has more in common with Fish in a Tree (a novel about learning disabilities) than with Harry Potter. It works on two levels: as a story about kids learning to use magic with often funny results and on a deeper level, about learning that it’s OK - and even great! – to be different.
As the kids in Nory’s class get to know each other and start to feel comfortable with their own wonky magic, they learn that being different can have its own rewards…and can even be valuable. The lessons that Nory learns along the way are very clearly applicable to non-magic kids, too, whether they struggle with learning disabilities, physical or mental illness, autism or are just the “weird” kids in school who march to the beat of their own drummers. This fun novel set in a magic world lets all kids know that it’s OK to be different.