Kane Miller sent me a middle grade fantasy trilogy about Polly & Buster, a young witch and a young monster who are best friends despite monster and witch society not always seeing eye to eye.
The first book in the series introduces us to Polly, a 9-year-old witch who just can’t seem to get her witching schoolwork right. Her older sister, Winifred, is the star sibling, and her widowed mother is often frustrated by Polly’s inability to excel like Winifred, and by her friendship with Buster, the monster next door. Polly and her family are still reeling from her father’s death in the mines a few years ago, which seems to be the tipping point for witch-monster tensions. When Polly casts a powerful spell while trying to protect Buster from bullies, her actions are misinterpreted, and the relationship between witches and monsters grows dangerous. Polly and Buster have to work together to salvage their own relationship and keep one another safe as witches and monsters choose sides in what could be a brewing war.
I was pulled right into this easily readable adventure. Polly exhibits some ADHD, dyslexic, and OCD tendencies, which could be linked to her burgeoning witch power: think Percy Jackson and the similar issues exhibited by demi-gods in that series. Buster is a kind-hearted monster who tries to hide his sensitivity from other monsters; his feelings manipulate his size and color, leaving him open to bullying. Witch and monster society in this series is symbolic of our own society: racism, intolerance, and exclusion abounds in witch society, while monsters grow increasingly tired and angry of being considered second-class citizens. Throw in a mean girl bully, and her equally mean, manipulative mother, and Polly and Buster goes from being a sweet story about acceptance and friendship to a powerful look at inequality and revolt.
The second book in the Polly and Buster series brings the action and the tension up several notches as readers witness the breakdown of relations in witch-monster society. Polly and Buster are on the run from witches who have determined that Buster is dangerous and needs to be taken prisoner (or worse); Polly turns to her favorite teacher, the sympathetic Miss Spinnaker, for help. Meanwhile, a handful of mysterious stones that Polly’s father left to her start to glow and feel warm to the touch; Polly feels them beckoning her… to the mines where her father died?
The Mystery of the Magic Stones brings the action on quickly – witch and monster society are breaking down, and the story has a very Harry Potter feel as a group of vigilante witches start taking policing matters into their own hands as monsters form gangs to protect one another and defend themselves against witches. There’s a feeling of urgency throughout the story, as Polly tries to unravel the mystery of the stones while she and Buster are running and hiding for their lives. No sophomore syndrome here; the second book in the Polly and Buster series will leave readers waiting to find out how this is all going to shake out: make sure you have that third book ready to give them.
The third book in the Polly and Buster series brings things to a big close. Polly and Buster have been on the run through all of the second book as relations between witches and monsters threaten to descend into violence. Polly has made discoveries about herself that will change how others see her – if she can stay safe long enough! Seeking out her aunt – an outcast from witch society – for answers, Polly hopes to unload the burden the stones have put on her. Meanwhile, there’s a dark power brewing in Polly and Buster’s neck of the woods, and it’s making everything worse!
In this third book, Polly learns that she’s far stronger than she ever dreamed – her inner strength will give her the power she and Buster need to make things right between their two communities, and will help her defend everyone she loves against the biggest danger that her village has ever faced. Polly has her hero’s journey across these three books, but Buster also comes into his own as a monster who accepts his feelings and can put aside his own fear to jump in and help when he’s needed.
The whole series, originally published in the UK, is great for emerging readers who are ready for a little more of a challenge in terms of book content and length. It’s an intermediate-level series with more heft and big social issues to unpack. There’s fantastic world-building, solid character development, and sympathetic heroes and villains alike. Black and white illustrations throughout will keep readers interested, and help with pacing and imagining. This series will be super-popular with your fantasy readers. U.S. publisher Kane Miller has a bunch of extras, including a free word search, discussion questions and activities, and some discussions points from the author herself.