After my last middle grade was such a terrible dud, I was a bit afraid to embark into these pirate-laden waters. What if I felt like they'd shivered the timbers of these books unfairly, robbing them of a better life for inferior content? Or stole away my precious time, better spent with other books? Thankfully, Caroline Carlson's pirates aren't such vicious fiends. They're quite honorable, as pirates go anyway, and entirely lovable. Magic Marks the Spot is pretty close to perfect for what I want from a light-hearted middle grade: humorous, populated by lively characters, and promoting the idea that both boys and girls are capable of the same sorts of things.
Before I even got to page one, Magic Marks the Spot had already made me smile and snort. See, before the page numbers even start counting, there are several pages of letters, which set the tone for the rest of the novel. In fact, letters, documents, and snippets of books are woven brilliantly throughout the novel, a technique often used, but rarely done to quite so enjoyable effect.
Hilary Westfield receives a letter congratulating her on her acceptance to the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates' Piracy Apprenticeship Program and telling her that the program will change her from "a wide-eyed and innocent young man." Hilary writes back, informing them of her excitement and correcting them on a factual error: namely, she's a girl. The VNHLP writes back aghast and offended, forwarding her application on to Miss Pimm's Finishing School for Delicate Ladies, much to Hilary's disgust. In her final response to the VNHLP, she closes with this:
"I assure you that I will walk the plank a thousand times, into cold and shark-infested waters, before I will attend Miss Pimm's.
Really Quite Furious with You"
From that moment on, I was in love with this book and its characters. Hilary is a fantastically sassy girl who refuses to let anyone, be they parent, headmistress or pirate, tell her what her gender means she can and cannot do. Magic Marks the Spot is so girl-positive and anti-stereotypes. Pirates can be friendly, girls can be pirates, boys can sew without it doing them a lick of harm, governesses can be sassy, and old ladies can be badasses. These are excellent lessons for the intended age group, and are conveyed in a totally non-preachy way.
Though almost everyone she meets tells Hilary she cannot be a pirate because of her gender and social standing, she does not give up. She has a dream and will not let anyone stop her from getting there. Plus, she has a plucky gargoyle sidekick to help cheer her up when times get rough, like when she's forced to attend Mrs. Pimm's, which teaches courses like etiquette and fainting. Gargoyle is so completely precious, with his desire for ear scratches and dream of one day having a pirate hat.
Hilary's governess, introduced as a rather drab, formidable figure, turns out to be wholly delightful as well. As soon as she ceases being Hilary's governess, she's able to open up to Hilary and truly be a friend. Eloise Greyson is a wonderful human being, and I totally support the ship of her with the pirate captain Jasper, Terror of the Southlands. He's basically the most lovable pirate after Captain Shakespeare from Stardust. Oh, and Charlie, his first made is adorably awkward, and I am waiting for some super cute middle grade romance to happen later.
What Left Me Wanting More:
The one aspect that had me side-eyeing the book was how unaffected Hilary is to learn that her father is the bad guy. Yes, he's not been the most supportive parent ever, but she's sad for like five minutes and then is completely unaffected for the rest of the book. Admiral Westfield was not so terrible that a daughter wouldn't struggle to accept his villainy or be tempted to join up with him. Hilary's a strong girl, so I don't doubt that she would make the same choices, but I would have liked to see her feel more in response to what is a completely groundbreaking change for a child.
The Final Verdict:
Magic Marks the Spot kept me grinning and laughing the whole way through. There's situational humor, sarcasm everywhere, and silly puns. Basically, it's perfection for me and other people who have the sense of humor of a ten year old, like, say, actual ten year olds. I see this being a huge hit with the intended audience, but it's a delight for an older reader as well.