In Brian Starr’s middle-grade book, an unconventional witch tries to use her magic to lift her family’s spirits as they deal with an unexpected death.
Within her mass of curly hair, Martha May McKenzie pulls out magical and non-magical objects and performs other astonishing tricks. One day after bewitching a boy to eat more vegetables, she receives a visit from her daughter Jamie, teenage granddaughter Trinity and young grandson Lucas. Jamie hopes the visit will provide a distraction, as the children’s police officer father was recently killed in a conflagration. For the same reason, Martha has created a magic cake; after taking a bite, a wish is granted.
The children are asleep in the car as Martha and Jamie resume a decades-long feud about whether Martha is a real witch. Then, soon after, the cake plan goes awry and the four are transported to the Dark Ages, complete with a blood-thirsty duke and his warriors. As the family attempts to return home, they meet challenges and suffer tragedy.
Starr’s descriptions are delightful: “The floors creaked like crazy, and the walls ran with splitting cracks that popped through the ugly brittle wallpaper…” Additionally, he skillfully portrays Trinity, who is obsessed with taking cell phone pictures, and Lucas, a sensitive, sweetly nerdy boy. The expressive, lightly shaded illustrations are wonderfully whimsical.
Unfortunately, the plot is more a series of events than a cohesive narrative. The story’s core conflict isn’t clear, and Martha’s actions towards her daughter are confounding. When Jamie arrives, her mother immediately starts talking about the difficulties of being a witch, fully aware that her claim of being a witch has embittered Jamie. When Jamie asks her to prove her ability, Martha snaps: “No…You’re a condescending grump, and I don’t want to.” Readers will wonder why her mother didn’t simply stay quiet through the years–or demonstrate a single magic trick to placate her daughter.
The book holds some charm and kid appeal. However, revision to correct the aforementioned issues would greatly enhance its effectiveness.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.