Sage Blackwood is definitely an author at the top of her game as she gives us yet another intriguing children’s fantasy, this time a stand alone. And although middle grade is likely the target audience, the themes and nuances make this a very interesting read for adults as well. With Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded, we have a modern day Alice in Wonderland poking gleeful fun at Trump America as skillfully as Lewis Carroll skewered Victorian society. Those looking for a good read need not worry about messages getting in the way -this book is a fun adventure story featuring a plucky but diffident 13 year old girl and her somewhat distracted fire breathing dragon.
Chantel lives in the walled city of Lightning Pass, learning to be a good summoner sorceress at Miss Ellicott’s school. The city is protected by magical wards on the wall called the Seven Buttons. Though Chantel is a bit cheeky for her own good, she has a bright future as a skilled summoner. That is, until the city’s sorceresses disappear, marauders besiege the wall, food runs short, and she is forced to seek help from both the city’s powerful Patriarchs and then the King himself. But they have their own distractions and a 13 year old girl who hasn’t learned proper deportment or etiquette is just a nuisance. That is, until the dragon appears….
From the cover image as well as the description, this would seem to skew to the younger side of middle grade. But really, this is an intricate and layered story that should appeal to young and old. As with Alice in Wonderland, younger readers will enjoy Chantel’s adventures and older readers can ponder the many themes brought up seamlessly through the plot and character interactions. Because like Alice, our heroine Chantel will continually come up against metaphors for the silliness of modern day politics, mores, and society as she attempts to save her City (especially from itself).
The theme here is “think bigger” and that runs throughout the book. Since this is a Blackwood novel, children have a clarity that the adults, in their petty machinations, always seem to lose. Indeed, our dragon is a metaphor for that clarity rather than a deus ex machina to fix Chantel’s situation (especially since one of the adults ‘lost’ the dragon when she became of age and gave up childish things). As with the Jinx series, our protagonist is underestimated, rebuffed, ignored, and patronized despite her willingness and ability to see to the heart of the situation and what needs to be done. Similarly, Chantel (also like Jinx) will be continually frustrated and doubt her own instincts in the face of adult self confidence.
All the characters are wonderfully eccentric and distinct; from the adults who are acting with tunnel vision narrowness to Chantel’s new and old friends, who each prove to be a unique resource in some way. Not everyone has Chantel’s boldness and certainly many find it easier to just do as the adults say since ‘they should know best, after all.” But then again, Chantel isn’t acting recklessly or blindly and does try to balance the advice given by others with that she feels instinctively. It doesn’t always put her in the best situations and certainly the adults manage to frustrate her quite a bit.
Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded isn’t a Lampoon of modern society but does create an interesting window that is almost prescient considering it was written pre-Trump. It is also an incredibly fun and quick read well worth the time investment by both kids and adults. Interestingly enough, I can’t help but wonder if this book will become its own classic as a window on the America of 2017: walls to keep out neighbors, obsession over capitalism and taxes, and the return of conservative values and their implications for girls/women. Highly recommended. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.