Children's Review: The Magic Misfits

In addition to being an acclaimed actor, director and producer, Neil Patrick Harris is making a name for himself as an author, as evidenced initially by his highly entertaining 2015 memoir, Choose Your Own Autobiography, and now by his debut middle-grade novel, The Magic Misfits, the first in a four-part series. Harris's connection to Lemony Snicket (through their Series of Unfortunate Events Netflix show) is obvious in The Magic Misfits, with nods to Snicket's evil villains and plucky but seemingly doomed orphans.

"Carter never had a home. He'd never had friends or his own bedroom. He'd never gone to school or had a place that made him feel safe. He and his uncle slept in shelters on good days and in dark alleys on bad ones, constantly moving from town to town to town. After all, when you're in the habit of making other people's things vanish, it's best that you know how to vanish too."

Although he is a street magician, young Carter has not believed in magic for a long time, ever since his beloved parents, in "their final vanishing act," mysteriously "failed to come home" one day. Carter was sent to live with an unscrupulous uncle named "Sly," who, like Carter's dad, did magic tricks. But unlike his dad, Sly performed with the end goal of cheating his audience out of their money and valuables. Carter picks up his uncle's skills, but steers away from his moral compass point: Uncle Sly would like nothing better than to use Carter as his assistant con artist; Carter would like nothing better than to find a real home.

Carter runs away, hopping a train that stops in a small town called Mineral Wells. There he meets the two Mr. Vernons (a magic shop owner and his chef partner) and their daughter Leila, who is an escape artist. Leila introduces him to her friends Theo, a levitator, and Ridley, a grumpy girl ("Yes, I'm in a wheelchair. Don't ask me about it or you'll get a bloody nose.") who practices transformation. The four kids form a ragtag crew of magic "misfits" who are mocked for their strangeness: their clothes (Theo always wears a tuxedo), their intelligence and, in Carter's case, homelessness. Together, they conspire to prevent a dastardly carnival owner named B.B. Bosso from stealing the largest diamond in the world. In the process, they find they are in fact a perfect fit--for each other.

The chapters are whimsically named--Chapter Eight, for example, "rhymes with fate" and Chapter Seventeen is "six more than nine, multiplied by ten, plus three, then divided by nine"--and there are mini-chapters interspersed throughout with magic trick how-to's (such as "How to Make a Color Prediction," and "How to Move Objects with Your Mind"). Lissy Marlin's marvelous black-and-white cartoonish illustrations capture the "magic" of Carter's adventures in Mineral Wells. Fans of the A Series of Unfortunate Events books will undoubtedly enjoy the lively adventures and intrigue in Harris's debut children's novel. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Shelf Talker: Neil Patrick Harris's middle-grade series debut features four nonconformist practitioners of magic tricks--"magic misfits"--who band together to take down an evil carnival boss.

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