BooksforTopics Reading for Pleasure Recommendations
Book Title: The Vanishing Trick (available here)
Author: Jenni Spangler
Illustrator: Chris Mould
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Kids
Publication Date: April 2020
Most suitable for: KS2
Reviewer: Louise Buisson
An exciting adventure story set in the Victorian era that plays on prevalent superstitions and social issues of the time.
The story begins with twelve-year-old Leander, a penniless orphan being chased through the streets after stealing some food. Along the way, he is seemingly 'rescued' by the mysterious and exotic Madame Pinchbeck, who convinces him to become her travelling companion. Unsurprisingly, the offer is too good to be true, and as soon as Leander agrees to the position, he finds out that he has been tricked into giving up part of his soul to the mysterious woman.
Upon meeting two other children in Madame Pinchbeck’s ‘care’, Leander discovers that all three of them are trapped in her service, captured inside a personal item that each has agreed to give her to seal the deal. For the children, these items (called 'cabinets') possess magic that enables them to disappear, either by choice or on an order from their mistress. For Leander it's his mother’s locket, for Charlotte a lantern and for Felix a violin case. The children are free to leave their cabinets as long as they are open. If closed, they have to wait to be released - or be trapped for eternity. The children cannot venture far from the woman without risking evaporating and Pinchbeck’s death would also result in their own. Entirely in the hands of Madame Pinchbeck, the children find themselves in a position that is as unenviable as it is intriguing for the reader.
Madame Pinchbeck advertises herself as a ‘medium’, secretly using the appearing and disappearing children to fool customers into believing that they are being visited by spirits. She is determined to become famous, using photographs as evidence of her connections to the spirit world. As time passes, it becomes clear that her powers cannot support all three children at once and, knowing that time is running out, they realise that they must act together to save themselves and find the solution to their captivity before it is too late.
This is an evocative and suspenseful story with thrills, twists and turns. Darkness and magic weave through the narrative and the antagonist Madame Pinchbeck is a scary character, bringing together elements of other child-snatcher figures in literature and also inspired by the real charlatan 'spiritualist' movement from the time. There's plenty of Victorian history to explore in the background to the story (in particular child poverty and the invention of the camera), and themes of friendship, belonging and hope provide nuance to the darker elements, making this an original and enjoyable middle grade read recommended for fans of Michelle Harrison and Lemony Snickett.
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Many thanks to the publishers at S&S Kids for sending us a review copy.
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