Book Review: THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT, by Chris Baron

Full disclosure: poetry and I don’t see eye to eye.  It has a lot to do with a certain poetry test I took as an eighth grader and bombed, but that is a story for another blog post. HOWEVER, Chris Baron’s middle grade novel in verse, The Magical Imperfect, was accessible for me, and even inspired me to create, in words and images, the feelings, thoughts, and wonderings provoked by Malia and Etan’s story. I was so inspired that I literally turned my copy of The Magical Imperfect into a scrapbook. Here’s proof!   

Etan is a 12 year old that lives in a tight knit community.  He lives with his mom and dad and spends his free time in his grandfather’s jewelry repair shop.  When we meet Etan he is going through selective mutism, he is incapable of producing audible speech in certain situations and with certain people.  This stems from his mom’s current health condition, Etan and his dad took her to a behavioral health hospital, at her request. Etan wonders where his words went, wonders when his mom will come home, wonders why there seems to be a struggle between his dad and grandfather, wonders all this and more in silence. When he makes a delivery to  Malia, a 12 year old girl who is currently homeschooled to shield her from the cruelty of some of her  classmates that used her acute eczema, a skin condition that manifests as an itchy rash that can blister, scab and leave marks on the skin to call her “The Creature” and bully her.  Etan doesn’t think she looks like a creature, and in her company, he feels safe and speaks.

As you can imagine, Etan, his father and his grandfather, are all processing mom’s needs and decisions in different ways. Although I used my annotating acronym A.F.K. (Adults Failing Kids) for some of the actions of the  caring adults in Etan’s life, Chris Baron invests in making secondary characters as fully human as possible.  This caught my attention because for a while now, I have been thinking that if we, as adults, owned up to our own humanness and shared it early on with the children in our lives- that we don’t have it all figured out, we are not all-knowing, we hope we know best, but alas!, we get a lot of things wrong; then our kids would not be so disappointed, we wouldn’t lose bits of their trust, when life exposes us. Chris Baron gives readers this knowledge through Etan’s acknowledgement that the adults in his life, because of their humanness, do not have all the answers, are imperfect, and therefore disappointment at their shortcomings isn’t crushing. With this acknowledgement Etan finds the strength to assess his adults, the situation and what his gut tells him is the right path.  I hope that Mr. Baron, and other authors who write for our middle grade readers continue to expose this in characters that are as full as the ones in The Magical Imperfect. 

What The Magical Imperfect Gifts Middle Grade Readers

Readers will be able to internalize what Etan knows about adults and their humanness, as Etan shares his thinking, weighing the words and actions of his adults, their capacity, and what he feels to be right.  As an educator and parent committed to helping children develop critical thinking skills on things that matter, I am grateful for Etan’s awareness. Readers will also glean a flowchart of sorts, to guide them when they think about adults’ words and actions as they become aware of their adults’ vulnerability.

Set in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1989, the year the San Francisco Giants made it to the World Series and also the year of a 6.9 magnitude earthquake that caused extensive damage, readers will be in constant anticipation of how these two events play out. Who will win the World Series? Are they finally reading about  THE BIG earthquake? These events not only provide a rush of excitement to the story, but also an opportunity for readers to witness how a community can live in harmony even when they are rooting for different outcomes (Etan and Malia’s town has a mix of dedicated Giants fans and A’s fans!), practice different religions (Etan’s family and some members of the community are Jewish as well as other faiths, but Judaism is showcased in the story), and how they come together without reservation when someone in their community is in need.   

The Magical Imperfect will accompany other middle grade novels that I hold dear, because they offer young readers a model of what friendship feels like, empathy that moves to action, interest in each other’s passions, high expectations and accountability, the need to ask for forgiveness and to forgive with equal urgency.  Etan and Malia also provides an opportunity for readers to behold a healthy friendship between kids of a different gender than self.  I work with 5th graders, and they cannot seem to separate friendship from “like-liking” at this age, it makes them miss out on finding true friendships, a lot.

Readers who enjoy magic realism, stories that mostly happen in the real world but are spiced with magical, fantasy elements posed in an utterly believable premise, will find themselves suspending disbelief as Etan’s grandfather shares the magical contents of a mysterious box that traveled with him when he emigrated from Prague to Angel Island in the U.S., the equivalent of Ellis Island, with Etan.

Our kids consume an immense amount of messages about what beauty looks like, mostly portrayed by models who are unhealthily thin and have light smooth skin, that skews their views about their own beauty and that of others around them.  Reading The Magical Imperfect middle graders will come to know and care about Etan’s friend, Malia, who offers us a counterculture point of view to beauty.  Malia’s battle with acute eczema, juxtaposed with Malia’s singing voice,her generosity in sharing it, her magnetic personality, sense of style, her relationship and interaction with nature and her ability to really see her friend Etan, invites readers to redefine their views of beauty.

What The Magical Imperfect Gifts the Adults who Live with Middle Grade Readers

Remember my annotating acronym A.F.K. (Adults Failing Kids)?  Adults in Etan and Malia’s life are loving but they are also human.  Adult readers can reflect on the thoughts and feelings Etan goes through as the consequence of an adult offering him a well intentioned comment about making an effort to speak, that impacts him negatively.  Malia and Etan both give us insight on how hollow promises offer zero hope and that a vulnerable “I don’t know. I’m not sure if…” is best, because it’s genuine.  Etan also shares what an adult that really listens looks like, what they make a kid feel.  We should all remember this when our kids want our attention, it is a “heart” priority!

As adults we can open up a conversation about mental health and taking care of one’s own, with Etan’s mom.  Although the exact issue she is feeling is not disclosed, we learn that she is overwhelmed by feelings of sadness. She decides to reach out for help, although it is difficult to be away from Etan and his dad, and focus on healing and feeling healthy before continuing to fully be mom and wife.  Again, Chris Baron doesn’t only show the bright side of this decision, he also portrays how a family member’s illness affects the whole family, even as they are supportive and understand that there is no other path. This is a wonderful conversation to set, reinforce, or rebuild the foundation of our views on mental health— it is part of our general health care and that actively seeking to heal is vital.

What The Magical Imperfect Gifts Educators

An engaging story that offers the opportunity to explore poetry, figurative language, and writing in verse and serves as mentor poems on sports fandom, weather, family, bullying, music and many other topics will motivate students to try this form, and focus their writing as well.  The biggest hurdle to write in any form, for many kids and adults, is a blank page and the “you can write about anything at all” prompt. 

The Magical Imperfect offers a counterbalance to what middle grade readers are exposed to when exploring The Holocaust.   Through Etan and his grandfather, readers gain insight into Jewish folklore, holy artifacts, family heirlooms, rituals and customs as well as some of the practices when observing Jewish holidays.  This insight is intertwined with the plot, making for an exploration that does not become a distraction, but can lead to wonderings, encouraging research that will help our students better understand and honor the Jewish members of their community, as well as globally. In our present national climate, offering students a baseline to refer to when they hear or learn about anti-Semitic ideology or actions is much needed. Chris Baron offers us additional elements to add to what school curriculum exposes our kids to, making it possible for them to create a more complex and layered idea of Jewish people in our nation’s past and its present.  

Self-selected research is an experience we must include in our students’ learning and I believe that The Magical Imperfect will make this experience authentic for readers.  I know that I was extremely curious about many things (Jewish and Filipino food, what is a tzedakah) and stopped frequently to do a Google search, read articles, and look for pictures.  I’ll share a few research-worthy topics I found as I read:  

  • Have the San Francisco Giants ever won The World Series
  • MLB players mentioned by Etan and Jordan 
  • Earthquakes- in the U.S./World comparison 0of intensity, predictability, frequency, areas
  • Jewish sacred objects, rituals, food
  • Pulley Systems and their modern use (Buddy went up and down on a pulley system!)
  • Malia’s 80’s songs (artist, music, lyrics, stats)- why did she like these songs so much and why did the author choose them? 
  • The effects of sharing sports’ fandom in family connection

I hope you choose to share Malia and Etan’s story with the kids in your life and, if you are an educator, in your classroom.  Going back to school after a pandemic year will be a smoother experience if we emulate the community action and love we witness in The Magical Imperfect as we sort through our memories of what it means to coexist as a classroom family in a physical space.  As our kids grapple with the isolating effects of this past school year and ease back into sharing time and space with old and new friends, Etan and Malia’s friendship will help nurture healthy, supportive interactions, and although they might feel a little rusty on how it all goes, their empathy, kindness, and joy will be tickled and awoken by Chris Baron’s The Magical Imperfect.

Ro Menendez is a picture book collector and teacher-librarian in Mesquite, TX.  After thirteen years in the bilingual classroom she decided to transition to the library where she could build relationships with ALL readers on her campus. She enjoys the daily adventure of helping young readers develop their reader identity by connecting them with books that speak to their hearts and sense of humor! Ro’s favorite pastimes include reading aloud to children and recommending books to anyone who asks! She is also very passionate about developing a diverse library collection where all readers learn about themselves and those around them. You can find her on Twitter at @romenendez14.