Day (Hostile Fortunes, 2002) offers a contemporary tale for middle-grade readers about two kids transformed by their belief in a magic subway token.
Thirteen-year-old Lilly and 11-year-old Sebastian are two bright but otherwise ordinary kids who live with their mother in New York City. They find that growing up can sometimes be tough, especially when they have to deal with bullies such as Monica Green, a snooty girl intent on making Lilly feel inferior, and Warner, a chess prodigy who uses the game to publicly humiliate Sebastian. Things change when kindly old neighbor Mr. Bernstein gives Sebastian an old subway token, which appears to turn its keeper into the best possible version of himself or herself—as long as the person who gives it wishes “goodspeed.” The children let themselves believe in its magic and, as a result, soon accomplish goals they never expected to reach. In a welcome distinction from other magical tales, the token’s magic only allows one to make use of one’s own talents; no one gains supernatural powers, and everything the kids accomplish could be done without the help of magic. This is, in part, why the concept works so well: Some readers may believe that the magic is real, while others may feel that the token merely gives the main characters an excuse to believe in themselves. Either way, readers will likely learn a lesson in self-confidence. The blending of reality and fantasy runs through the entire book, creating a consistent ambience; for example, when Sebastian claims to understand animals, the ones with which he communicates are both exotic and commonplace: a pet squirrel, a snow leopard in a zoo, and a dog (which is initially mistaken for a wild animal). This well-structured novel doesn’t have much drawn-out drama, but it does have enough action to keep readers engaged, and a story that moves along at a steady pace.
An effective mix of the fantastical and the ordinary for a young audience.