Friday, October 4, 2013

Review - "The Secrets at the Chocolate Mansion"

Broadcast News is one of my favorite films of all time, and in it, Albert Brooks' character Aaron says something along the lines of 'the devil will convince us that we're all just salesmen'.  I've always loved this speech (not the least because Brooks so beautifully delivers it), but because I could relate.  I was a Girl Scout for many years.  I sold cookies.  Luckily for me, there wasn't an enormous amount of pressure to sell the most, and I got by.  Now, as a librarian, I have kids and teenagers coming in waves selling fruit, candy, wrapping paper and coupons.  And all of them have this desperate gleam in their eyes, as if their life depended on every sale.  Given the state of school budgets, that's probably not half wrong.  The pressure on these kids is enormous.

Now why am I bringing this up in a review about a middle grade mystery novel about a haunted mansion?  Read it (yes, please do) and you'll see.  Because amidst all the clues and chills and chocolate, Ms. Margolis is saying something important.  The pressure to succeed can be crippling, and not just for children.  When Maggie Brooklyn's friend Sonya's family opens a new soda shop, and the Grand Opening is marred by a sugar/salt swap, a clumsy (or is she?) soda jerk and a smashed window with a threatening note, Maggie takes up the case.  Things continue to go wrong, and Sonya's mother, the proprietor is ready to cut her losses almost immediately, rather than risk being a complete failure.  Add to this a new babysitting gig in a supposedly haunted mansion for a lively three-year-old who has a "see-through" friend who sings haunting songs.  Pile on top of that a D+ on a history test and a boyfriend who won't talk to her, and it's no wonder that Maggie is starting to crack.  But with the help of her twin, Finn and some good old fashion gumption, Maggie manages to save the day, from soda shop saboteurs, ghosts, extra credit and stubborn seventh grade boys.

Ms. Margolis has at least one thing going for her in a very impressive way: she knows middle-schoolers.  She knows how they talk, she knows how they think.  Between the Maggie Brooklyn mysteries and her Annabelle Unleashed series (Boys Are Dogs, etc.), she almost has the market cornered on smart, funny, realistic girls.  Her books are mightily enjoyable, and subtly broadening.  You won't even notice you're becoming a more well-rounded person, until you just are.

The Secrets at the Chocolate Mansion by Leslie Margolis
2013, Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Preview copy provided by publisher for review

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