MMGM and #IMWAYR (8/17/2020): The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd (a re-review)
If you read my recent review of Natalie Lloyd's MG novel Over the Moon, you know that I had very mixed feelings about the book. This was such a shame, considering the excellence of Lloyd's previous books, that I decided to re-read Lloyd's novel The Key to Extraordinary to comfort myself. Today, I am re-reviewing The Key to Extraordinary, as, although I reviewed it once here, I do not think that my review did it justice. And before I keep going, know that this is one of just two books (the other is Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead) that has had the honor of being re-reviewed by me, so that should tell you quite a bit about how good this book is!
Emma Pearl Casey loves her life in Blackbird Hollow, Tennessee. She loves her Granny Blue and her big brother Topher, she loves the Boneyard Café where they live and work, she loves the adjacent graveyard that she gives tours of, and she loves the history, nature, and magic of her town. Emma's life isn't perfect, though, as her beloved mother died a couple years earlier. Emma wants to stay connected to her mother, and luckily for her, all of the generations of women in Emma's family have been connected by Destiny Dreams, dreams that tell these women their unique destinies (which range from suffragette to famous musician). Emma is waiting to have her Destiny Dream, but when she does, it seems to point her toward finding a mysterious treasure hidden in Blackbird Hollow. No one has found this treasure for centuries, and it also might be haunted, but Emma is prepared to find it (especially considering her family's café needs money to stay afloat) and fulfill her family's legacy.
Every one of Natalie Lloyd's MG books has a magical, close-knit small town, and Blackbird Hollow in The Key to Extraordinary is no exception. The town is full of flowers that magically bloom everywhere (some of which have magic powers), the people of the town come to the Boneyard Café every week to dance to folk songs and eat pastries and Boneyard Brew (basically super-delicious hot chocolate), and there are quite a few supernatural occurrences as well (owing to the aforementioned graveyard in the town). Reading this book is as much about seeing the joy that permeates this wonderful town of traditions and stories as it is about following Emma's journey to fulfill her destiny (and trust me, despite some of the melancholy themes that are featured in this novel, the joy comes through loud and clear, more than any other emotion). It definitely helps that Blackbird Hollow is populated by a wonderful bunch of people: Emma is a multifaceted, thoughtful, and kind protagonist, characters like Granny Blue and Emma's deceased mother have their own stories, and even minor characters like my favorite, Aunt Greta (who rides around on a bright-pink scooter because of her bad hip) have fun little backstories.
One of the best compliments I can say about The Key to Extraordinary is that it is one of, I don't know, seven MG novels that actually have something useful to say about grief (out of the approximately 3 bazillion that attempt to say something about grief). Emma's experiences learning about the destinies of her ancestors through a book where they are chronicled, as well as all of the time she spends exploring or giving tours of the graveyard next to her home, have given her quite a bit of experience thinking not about the pain of people's deaths, but the joy of what they did when they were alive. These experiences help Emma throughout the story in dealing with her grief of her own mother; Emma gradually begins to find joy, not just pain, in her memories of her mother. The Destiny Dreams that connect Emma's family also help her feel connected to her mother even after her death, and you could absolutely remove the magical aspect and apply the idea of continuing your family's legacy to real life. It's really amazing to see how all of the details in this story are not just there to make for a fun reading experience, but to actually move Emma along the path toward the last stage of grief, acceptance.
Some other thoughts: Emma is joined in this story by two friends, Cody Belle and Earl, and they are both just wonderful! In contrast to the vaguely-defined best friend in Over the Moon (Adam), Cody Belle and Earl are completely distinct characters both from Emma and from each other, and the way that they and Emma care about each other and attempt to help each other is just wonderful. I am also a sucker for food in books, and I loved every second of the description of all of the pastries that Emma's Granny Blue and brother Topher make at the café (although since I can't stand lavender, I would almost-definitely dislike the peach-lavender muffins in the story). As with Over the Moon (and Lloyd's debut A Snicker of Magic, for that matter), Lloyd quietly and excellently represents various physical differences in this story: Emma is short and has a scar on her face, Earl is unable to speak, and Aunt Greta rides on the aforementioned hot-pink scooter. One small bummer in the story is that the series of clues involved in Emma's search for treasure is not as well-put-together as I would have liked, but I'll end with one last thing about this book that I loved: readers get to see the history of several of Emma's ancestors, and some of their accomplishments tie into real-life history in a really interesting way! This book isn't just a slice-of-life/fantasy combo; it's also a little bit of historical fiction!
It's really amazing that this book accomplishes all that it does in just 227 pages; it doesn't drag on at all, but you never feel like you didn't get to see enough of Emma's world! All in all, The Key to Extraordinary is a truly delightful read that combines plenty of magic and world-building, wonderful characters, interesting thoughts about grief, a touch of history, and a balance of emotion that always leans toward happiness! Although you might not want to read one of Lloyd's books after seeing my review of Over the Moon, I cannot stress enough how that book is the exception rather than the rule. I can almost guarantee that you'll love this book, and I wouldn't be remotely surprised if it becomes one of your favorite books (just as it did for me)!
Update (11/30/2020): My rating is: Stunning!