Ellen Booraem is one of Maine’s unsung treasures. Why she’s unsung is a mystery. It may be because picture books tend to be the rock stars of the children’s book world — and Maine has way more than its share of celebrated picture book creators. Booraem writes middle grade fiction. Stuck between young adult and picture books, this genre is like the middle child of publishing: often overlooked and underappreciated.

Booraem’s first three novels all garnered awards and praise in national trade publications. The highly respected Kirkus Reviews even did a feature on her headlined “One of the Best Kid’s Writers You’ve Never Heard Of.”  Maybe Booraem’s latest book will change that.

“River Magic” is fantasy, but it is no idle fantasy. The story opens with a gut punch: We meet our heroine Donna, her annoyingly adolescent older sister Janice, and their quirky and much-loved aunt and mentor Annabelle. Who drowns on page 2.

As the family struggles to cope with this tragedy, financial straits may force them to leave their home by the river and Donna to move in with hated relatives. The two sisters squabble constantly while their mother, a single parent, is drained trying to make ends meet. On top of this, Donna’s best friend, having helped her through the death of Annabelle, is being turned against her by a new girl at school.

Then a strange old woman called Vilma Bliksem moves next door. And Donna starts hearing what she thinks is Annabelle’s voice in her head. Here Booraem whisks the reader into the world of fantasy. The new neighbor turns out to be a “thunder mage” (a wizard), and the voice in Donna’s head is actually that of the mage’s dragon, who lives in the river. Oh yes, and there are pixies living in the garden. And enchanted gold. And chickens with human ears.

Booraem writes with a strong sense of humor and whimsey. The humor is dry Maine humor. “I do not need gold. I do not need dragons,” are the mage’s parting words. “I will work at L. L. Bean.” And the whimsey is fresh and never fey. There are pixies, admittedly, and they live in fairy houses; but they are raggedy pixies, covered in tattoos. Their idea of mischief is to turn ordinary chickens into polka dotted or paisley-colored ones.


This side of the story provides comic relief for the grittier real-life issues at the heart of the book — grief, loss and betrayal. In “River Magic,” the ties that bind us together — to friends, to home and most of all, between sisters — are tested, frayed and ultimately renewed and strengthened.

Booream describes in painful detail the delicate and brutal dance of friendship in middle school. When Donna’s best friend deserts her, she flirts with revenge, and then makes a new friend, this one a boy (virtually the only male character in the book), derisively nicknamed Hippie Hillyard by his classmates for his eccentric mannerisms and gender-defying style of dressing.

The author has spent most of her adult life in Maine, working for two decades for local newspapers before she turned to fiction. She has endowed “River Magic” with a strong sense of place. At the core of both Donna’s life and the story is the river.  “You’re a river girl,” a friend notes. It is not just because the river is magical — “a glittering seam of stars”— with its rough water and ley lines that make it good dragon habitat. It is inextricably linked with Aunt Annabelle and the house she helped build and which Donna may lose.

But more important than either friendship or place are the deep and often-fraught bonds between sisters. The story explores three such relationships: Mim and  Aunt Annabelle, strong women who help each other in times of need; Donna and her sarcastic sister Janice, who becomes deeply protective of her when push comes to shove; and the thunder mage Vilma, whose betrayal by her sister sets off the events that ensnare Donna’s family.

“River Magic” is fast paced, with many moving parts and a large cast of colorful characters. In general, this jam-packedness serves the story well, keeping readers turning the pages. At the end, however, things grow a bit chaotic as the “real” world in the form of policemen and game wardens suddenly intrudes into the world of dragons and pixies, and, in a rush to tie up all the loose ends, everything seems to happen at once. The result is an ending with a slightly too-tidy feel to it.

A quibble. “River Magic” is a little gem. Perhaps it will help its author go from unsung to being (in the words of children’s poet David McCord) “The singer, the song and the sung.”

Amy MacDonald is a freelance writer and children’s author. She may be reached at Amym781@gmail.com.

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