Getting on my Middle School: a Review of Braden Bell’s Middle School Magic trilogy

Lately, I have realized something.

I should never review middle-grade fiction, because I am not a middle-grader.

I remember, when I was growing up, enjoying books such as  Anne of Green Gables, Ramona, Little House on the Prairie, The Secret Garden & A Little Princess–the virtuosic works in childrens’ literature. I loved them a lot.  I also loved Sweet Valley Twins. The Babysitter’s Club. Help, My Teacher is An Alien. Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher. I just loved it all; classic, genre, popular. I’ve always been an eclectic reader.

My mother has excellent taste in fiction. She scoffed at some of what I read. And now I think I have fairly good taste in books as well, and I’m scoffing at what my children like.

Do you know what I have decided?  It takes a special kind of brilliance to write stories that middle schoolers will enjoy. And it takes a great deal of brilliance and love for middle schoolers, and a humility that amounts to being able to take one’s adulthood less seriously, to be an adult writing stories that middle schoolers will enjoy.

Anyway. The point is, reading Braden Bell’s triad (The Kindling, Penumbras and Luminescence), the adult in me squirms at moments. Like when a teacher punches a parent in the face. (Can you say fired?) And when twelve-year-old kids fall in love with each other. And when a middle school girl develops an attachment to her teacher. But guess what? As a middle grader myself, I did all those things (except punching people in the face, but I really WANTED to do that sometimes.)

Should I be reviewing this novel? No. Because I am not the intended audience. So what I’m going to attempt to do here is put aside all my adult squeamishness and tap into the middle-school-girl piece of my heart and review it that way.

This series is AWESOME. It has everything–magic, kids learning how to use magic, kids doing things that adults wouldn’t want them to and then winning. Teachers being silly, nerdy, frumpy, and completely amazing. Parents being too strict in some moments, but grounding and comforting at other moments.  The magic is pretty cool–kids streaming places like comets, shadow-creatures, sigils, Otherwhere, sigil traps, shadowboxes, the extremely scary stalker (isn’t that the subject of any middle-school-girl nightmare?). I am glad (spoilers, sorry) Connor and Melanie got together. I’m glad Lexa didn’t lose her powers in the end. I’m glad Mr. Timberi stayed alive. And I’m glad Lady Nightwing (pretty awesome name, by the way) died herself dead.

[OK. Now the adult is coming back into this review] When I started reading this series, my biggest hitch was Dr. Timberi. He felt akward and a little overdone,  and I had a bit of discomfort because I was fairly certain that the author was depicting himself (Bell, TImberi, middle-aged middle-school choir and drama teacher with black hair, and they seem to have identical voices, I know because I’m Bell’s friend on facebook).  It was bothering me so much (particularly after the TImberi character punched a parent in the face) that I did some internet research. I landed on Bell’s webpage, and found out that he started this series at a very difficult time in his career. That turned things around for me. I realized (as an adult) that this story is about faith, about believing in something even when others don’t appreciate all the work and love and care you put in, and in a sense, it was a bit of a vent on his part. Dr. Timberi punched a parent. Dr. Bell wouldn’t ever do that. So Dr. Timberi did.

I really appreciated how this series focused on family relationships, and on teacher-student relationships. Far from the lonely, dystopian, “you’re-on-your-own” message that a lot of YA and middle-grade fiction seems to portray these days, this book was about extraordinary adolescents growing and learning with the support (sometimes frustrating, curbing support) of teachers and parents. And as a parent, that is something that I would love for my children to soak in. A rare message these days: adults are smart. So are you. But listen to adults, because they love you.

I loved, in particular, the last half of the last book. I found myself becoming emotional with the ending chapters. This series does start off somewhat rough. The story flow is a little abrupt in places. There are “new writer” mistakes like word echoes, too many tags, and descriptions that don’t quite work. The rules and description for the use of “light and dark”, the magical element of the stories, are a bit confusing. The characters start off feeling somewhat less-believable. But it gets better with each book. By the end, I was very glad I’d put in the time to read it. I will be passing it on to my middle-school age daughter because I know she will enjoy it.

And Dr. Timberi is awesome.


5 thoughts on “Getting on my Middle School: a Review of Braden Bell’s Middle School Magic trilogy”

  1. What a lovely, perceptive, and generous review, Sarah. Thank you for taking the time to read, reflect and write about the trilogy. You brought up some excellent points.

  2. I should also clarify that I’ve never punched a parent. Or even wanted to 🙂 That was, truly and honestly, something that just seemed to grow out of the story. Pinky swear. Now, I have been tempted to share a few thoughts and choice words from time to time.

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