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  • Writer's pictureNora Curry

Spotlight on MSBA: The Magical Imperfect

This week continues a series of posts spotlighting books from this year's Maine Student Book Award list. If you missed the previous posts, here's a little summary:

Every year, a committee of teachers and librarians from across Maine (this one included), read through hundreds and hundreds of books for young readers to craft a final list of forty titles that students in grades 4 through 8 across the state can read throughout the school year. It's an exciting announcement each spring as we find out which book captured the most young hearts and minds throughout Maine when students vote for their favorites! You can find the award and voting process and the list for the 2022-2023 Maine Student Book Award here. Follow the links at the end of this post to request any of this year's MSBA books from our catalog.

Novels in verse have long been a mainstay of middle grade literature but have become increasingly popular and more common of late. Chris Baron's The Magical Imperfect is a particular standout, a (recent) historical fiction narrative that takes place in the time surrounding the 1989 World Series and severe earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area. The narrator, Etan, gives voice to his experiences through the book's poems, as he struggles with his mother's absence while she is receiving care for mental health issues. We as readers hear his voice, but those around him rarely do, as he has become essentially mute in the time since his mother's departure. He expresses himself through art but doesn't even share his drawings... that is, until he helps a neighbor by making a grocery delivery to a house by the woods and encounters Malia, a girl his age with eczema who stays within the bounds of her home because of her severe skin condition and the ruthless teasing that it garnered when she went to school.

Both Etan and Malia feel like outsiders in the wider world, but they find peace, healing, and even fun both in each other and in the world of the forest. After all, as Malia teaches him, "the trees are my friends." When they take the time to listen to the trees and each other, Etan and Malia are a little less alone, a little better understood. The phenomena of the natural world is not purely idealized, though, as it's the impending earthquake, hinted at through tremors throughout the book, that brings about the story's climax.

The Magical Imperfect is a quiet book with an almost ironically loud drama at its crux. Even the book's big events, from exciting baseball games to earthquakes, are ultimately about more subtle threads, though. Etan has a strong relationship with his grandfather, who teaches him about his Jewish heritage and shows him the supposedly magical clay from the Dead Sea that his family brought with them when they immigrated from Prague to Angel Island. Etan wants desperately to help his new friend Malia, and he takes the clay to try to heal her condition. Is there really magic afoot? Can Etan help Malia with the clay and bring her the confidence to get up on stage and use her beautiful voice in the community talent show?

Though his book moves at a slow rhythm, Baron packs in quite a bit of content, delving into the natural world, Jewish heritage, the importance of community, the beauty and challenges of the immigrant experience, mental health, bullying, and the bonds between family and friends. The strength of the (imperfect) bond developed between Etan and Malia lends a beautiful, heartwarming aspect to the story. Etan's fascination with his grandfather's tales gives the book a magical quality, but the world of the novel is grounded in more recognizable features of everyday life, like baseball and school drama. Though the history covered is fairly recent compared to much historical fiction, the story may inspire readers to learn more about the real events in 1989. Even as an adult reader, I found myself researching Angel Island, Jewish folklore and religion, and the 1989 earthquake and World Series while making my way through Etan's story. But it's not just Etan's story; it's a story about many people and how they can come together when needed. With so much threading through this novel in verse, it can appeal to a wide variety of readers, whether they're delving into the MSBA list or just looking for a memorable read.

To discover more about other books from this year's list, check out these past blog posts:

The Girl from the Sea, a graphic novel by Molly Knox Ostertag

Garlic & the Vampire, a graphic novel by Bree Paulsen

The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, a picture book written by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith

Chickenology: The Ultimate Encyclopedia, an informational picture book by Barbara Sandri and Francesco Guibbilini, illustrated by Camilla Pintonato

Watch this book trailer for The Magical Imperfect below:


Maine Student Book Award

Combined 2022-2023 Reading List

Applegate, Katherine. Willodeen.

Bacon, Lee. Imaginary.

Bailar, Schuyler. Obie is Man Enough.

Baron, Chris. The Magical Imperfect.

Bowling, Dusti. Across the Desert.

Chan, Maisie. Danny Chung Sums It Up.

Culley, Betty. Down to Earth.

Durham, David Anthony. The Shadow Prince.

Fagan, Deva. Nightingale.

Fipps, Lisa. Starfish.

Fox, Janet S. Carry Me Home.

Freeman, Megan E. Alone.

Guerrero, Tanya. All You Knead is Love.

Higuera, Donna Barba. The Last Cuentista.

Hoyle, McCall. Stella.

Lawrence, Iain. Deadman’s Castle.

Lim, Elizabeth. Six Crimson Cranes.

Ostertag, Molly. The Girl From the Sea.

Parks, Amy Noelle. Summer of Brave.

Paulsen, Bree. Garlic & the Vampire.

Pineiro, Victor. Time Villains.

Rosenberg, Madelyn. One Small Hop.

Roux, Madeleine. No Humans Allowed.

Smith, Matthew Ross. The Million Dollar Race.

Sorosiak, Carlie. Leonard (My Life as a Cat).

Swinarski, Claire. The Kate in Between.

Uss, Christina. Erik Vs. Everything.

Venable, Colleen A. Katie the Catsitter.

Walker, Angharad. The Ash House.

Zhao, Katie. Last Gamer Standing.

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