Today, a review of a Cybils Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction finalist.
The Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman. Candlewick, 2017.
Nick Reynaud’s life has been harsh since his mother died, leaving him in the hands of his uncle and cousin Jerry, where the care ranges between neglectful and abusive. His runaway attempts have gotten better over the years, though this time, he’s forced to leave without the bag of supplies he’s gathered for himself. He winds starving and freezing at an old house with the sign Evil Wizard Books. The old man there, who introduces himself as the Evil Wizard Smallbone, isn’t any too friendly, but won’t leave a boy out in the cold to starve. He tells Nick he’ll take him on as an apprentice, knowing that Nick will only learn what he, Wizard Smallbone, chooses to teach him, because Nick can’t read.
Nick, though, is an accomplished liar. He can read, and the bookstore seems to want to teach him magic, starting with E-Z Spelz for Little Wizardz. Nick learns spells in secret, while Smallbone teaches him to do the cooking and take care of the animals – two dogs, two cate (Hell Cat and sweet orange Tom), as well as assorted barn animals.
Smallbone is the guardian for the small tourist town, though he’s been there for so many centuries with things mostly stable that many of the villagers no longer believe he’s really necessary. That doesn’t stop them from being furious when Smallbone’s nemesis, the evil wolf Fidelou, along with his pack of coyotes, are able to come onto territory that should be blocked. Dinah, a 10-year-old scientist, exposes the fraying boundaries through her curiosity.
This is a book that is brimming with colorful personality, including of course tough and cautious Nick and gruff Wizard Smallbone (how evil is he really?), but also the many animals, Dinah and her mother, and the bookshop itself. It sounds trite to say that Nick has a journey to believing in himself, but it’s framed more as a path to figuring out what he really wants. That and his path to wanting to help anyone but himself are genuine and delightful without feeling overwrought. There are also some genuinely surprising and equally fun twists.
While there is no real ethnic diversity in this book, Delia Sherman is one of the few middle grade authors openly in a same-sex marriage. It’s also notable for a book with an older middle grade hero in that there is no hint of romance of any kind, either for Nick or any of the adults. This can be a selling point for the older elementary and middle grade students who are quite opposed to having any romance in their books, as many are.
The modern-day setting in rural Maine is quite different, but writing about this reminds me of the many similarities between this and Sage Blackwood’s Jinx, one of my favorite series.