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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Home Alone: The Magic Trap (The Lemonade War Series) by Jacqueline Davies

illusion (n) something that seems to be one thing when it is really another; a magic trick

It was a sound like an explosion that yanked Evan back awake. The sound was so loud, it even woke Jessie, who could sleep through an army invasion. "What was that?" she shouted, looking at Evan with wild eyes.

Evan and Jessie hurried out of their mother's room and followed the noise of the storm. When they got to Jessie's bedroom, they couldn't believe their eyes. A large tree limb was sticking right through the wall and lay on Jessie's bed.

Evan looked at Jessie, expecting her to flip out, but her face was very still. "If I'd slept there, I'd be dead." she said, like a reporter stating a fact.

When Jessie and Evan's war reporter now-you-see-him-now-you-don't dad turns up for first time in a year, their Mom reluctantly agrees to take him up on his offer to stay with the kids while she flies to the West Coast for an important business conference. The friend she'd recruited has just been taken to the hospital, the expensive flights are booked, and an important commission is riding on her making the trip.

Dad smiles and says, " I'll do it. I'm their dad!" and despite Evan and Jessie's distrust of their elusive parent, at first Dad is great. He makes pancakes, he agrees to help Evan build a disappearing rabbit box for his upcoming neighborhood magic show and even buys a white rabbit they name Professor Hoffman, although he absentmindedly leaves him in the car trunk for hours. Dad takes down the rotten railings around their back porch, declaring them an accident waiting to happen, transforms the rickety porch into a stage with red velvet curtains, and even orders a wicker disappearing box from India for the grand finale. When he cuts a hole in the porch floor for Jessie to make her secret escape from the box, he blithely announces he's calling a contractor to replace the whole deck.

But the next morning, up early, Jessie finds a note in the kitchen and runs upstairs to wake Evan, with the news that their father's super-dad act has been itself an illusion, ending in a disappearing act of his own:
HEY, KIDDOS!
HAD TO LEAVE EARLY BECAUSE OF THE STORM.  MOM WILL BE HOME SOON. KNOCK 'EM DEAD AT THE SHOW.
LOVE,
YOUR DEAR OLD DAD

There's a war on somewhere, and he has to be there. After all, "I'm the Best!" he's told Evan, with his charming grin. Evan and Jessie decide it is better not to tell their mom that Dad has left them alone until she gets back the next day. But when Jessie goes downstairs to watch cartoons, she finds another surprise worth getting Evan up for.
"It's on all the channels! The storm is coming! Here! It's not tracking to the west. It's heading straight for us! It's not a tropical storm anymore. It's a hurricane!"

Evan intuits that it's better not to tell the neighbors that they have been left alone by their father, and he knows Mom's flight won't be landing in a hurricane and that he and Jessie are on their own. "Stay calm and carry on!" Evan tells the panicked Jessie, using Mom's favorite World War II slogan, and carry on they do, in Jacqueline Davies' latest-in-series, The Magic Trap (The Lemonade War Series) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). The two very different siblings carry on together, playing to their strengths--Jessie coming up with her emergency supply list and Evan capably nailing up tarps and putting out buckets to catch the leaks, even hauling Jessie out of the flooded basement where she has gone to try to rescue the missing rabbit. And when the storm passes, Evan calmly comes up with a perfect performance for his rescheduled show, wowing the crowd with his card tricks, while in the best show-must-go-on tradition, Jessie overcomes her claustrophobia inside the disappearing box to vanish and reappear for the finale with a flourish in the audience--with the just-found Professor Hoffman in her arms.

Again author Davies uses her contrasting characters to build a suspenseful story of a brother and sister depending on each other with humor and insight, dealing with both the storm without and the storm within as they try to understand their driven dad's motivation that left them alone in a hurricane. As they try to resolve their "family first" mom and their "just-have-to-be-there" dad, Evan and Jessie instinctively work out a blend of their own abilities that get them through it together.

All the qualities that have made The Lemonade War an exemplary realistic fiction series for middle readers are present here--sibling rivalry, Evan's capable social and athletic skills set against his lackluster academic skills, Jessie's compulsive mastery of numerical skills and her total inability to interpret human behavior, and family problems that would disintegrate most families--along with pitch-perfect kid dialog and insight into elementary school relationships that make these books so notable. The author even shows off her extraordinary writer's chops in her chapter headings--all definitions of magic trick terms that also highlight the premise of each section.  And in this fifth book Davies shows that rare ability of the best of children's authors, to create plots in which their characters grow and change in a way completely true to themselves. Beverly Cleary had that ability, and it is with all reverence that I can say Jacqueline Davies has it, too, in the manner of Evan's best card trick, in spades.

While each book stands alone brilliantly, this series is at its best read in order. Previous books are The Lemonade War (The Lemonade War Series), The Lemonade Crime (The Lemonade War Series), The Bell Bandit (The Lemonade War Series), and The Candy Smash (The Lemonade War Series).

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