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Animal Character, BOOK REVIEWS, Magical Realism, Middle Grade Readers, Read-Aloud Suggestions, Teacher & Parent Recommendations

A TALE MAGNOLIOUS by Suzanne Nelson

Nitty is an orphan who has run away from the Grimsgate Orphanage. She happens upon Magnolious, a circus elephant about to be publicly executed for killing her trainer. Nitty instantly knows Magnolious is innocent and the two sort of rescue each other in the middle of one of the terrible dust storms that have been plaguing the land. Nitty and Magnolious land in Fortune’s Bluff where they meet a cast of loveable (and some not-so-loveable) characters including a heartbroken old man, a young detective named Twitch and the mayor, Neezer Snollygost (which is one of the best villain names I’ve come across in a long time!). The town of Fortune’s Bluff has been devastated by the dust storms and left without much hope. In the midst of Fortune’s Bluff’s despair Nitty and Magnolious bring love, imagination and determination–along with some very special seeds for planting.

A Tale Magnolious incorporates the magical realism of Nitty’s seeds in a way that reminds me of one of my favorite picture books, Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm by Jerdine Nolen; the magic is gentle, amazing, yet a naturally occurring phenomenon(as opposed to witchcraft, spells, etc.). I love Nitty’s story in A Tale Magnolious. Nitty has always believed herself to be a good person, but has been told repeatedly that she is not only bad, but worthless as well. Finding Magnolious is Nitty’s first step in challenging the awful things she has been told she must believe about herself in favor of what she knows, deep inside, to be her true nature and capabilities. Their journey together is beautiful in the deepest, warmest sense of the word. This has been compared to the works of Kate DiCamillo and Katherine Applegate and I think this is probably a reasonable comparison in general–more with Applegate than DiCamillo. The addition of the magical realism distinguishes Nelson and I adore her characters’ names! They feel inspired, contributing mightily to the creation of each character, in the way Charles Dickens chose names for his characters. (I am NOT comparing Nelson to Dickens.)

I am fascinated by elephants and snatched this one off the library shelves as soon as I saw it. The first 200 pages of A Tale Magnolious held me absolutely rapt; I didn’t want to put the book down for a minute and when I was reading I was totally engrossed in the story. The tale seemed to unfold naturally, the writing having an almost fable-like quality to it as Nitty observes both kindness and unkindness rolling the motivations for both around in her mind. I felt as if the story had a beautiful climax around the 200 page mark and then the final 100 pages seemed to turn the story in a different direction. It went from a thoughtful, tender fable to an adventure/caper storyline with Nitty and her friends Twitch and Bernice. This made the story feel fractured to me: split into two different stories. Both stories have merit and are well written, but I felt as if the first two-thirds was extraordinarily well done and I was slightly confused (and sad) when the tone, pace and plot changed focus.

A Tale Magnolious is a lovely story that at moments feels inspired and offers many opportunities as a read-aloud for conversations with young readers about their own ideas of self and how to strengthen their inner knowledge of who they are. Studies have shown that the most effective way to combat the problem of bullying–since we cannot control the actions of others–is to help a child build his/her inner core with knowledge of what makes them good, or special so that the actions of others cannot destroy the center of who they are.

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