I was surprised to find this book shelved with middle grade series in the bookstore, as The Grimm Legacy gives no particular indication that it's the first in a series. Then again, by the time I was done reading, I wanted it to be a series!
Polly Shulman takes a great premise and develops it to a fare-thee-well in this delightful new book aimed at tweens. We first meet eighth grader Elizabeth Rew and discover that she hasn't made any friends at her snobby new private school, while at home she has to deal with a mildly evil stepmother-and-two-stepsisters scenario. Then Elizabeth writes a paper on the Brothers Grimm for her history class and her history teacher, Mr. Mauskopf, recommends her for a job as a page at the New-York Circulating Material Repository.
After an odd test at the repository involving different ways of sorting buttons, Elizabeth winds up working in a "library" that lends objects, things like costumes and vases and antique weapons. The place even has one of Marie Antoinette's wigs! First-person narrator Elizabeth finds herself crushing on a co-worker, Marc, who's a basketball star at her school; tentatively making friends with a girl called Anjali; and getting irritated by the sarcastic Aaron.
Elizabeth also learns about Special Collections, most notably the Grimm Collection, which contains things like the two dozen shoes worn out by the twelve dancing princesses, the magic mirror from Snow White (which has a mean streak!), and seven-league boots. She eventually finds out that she and the other pages were hired partly because of their ability to sense magic.
Unfortunately, someone has been stealing items from the Grimm Collection and replacing them with non-magical duplicates. Are Marc and Anjali the culprits? They've been doing something sneaky with the seven-league boots. In a lot of ways, this book is simply a mystery with magic thrown in.
But oh, the fun things Shulman does with the magic! For example, Elizabeth has to memorize and sing a spell to get into the Grimm Collection, as well as use a magical key in the shape of a binder clip. Then there's that Snow White mirror, which will tell the truth, but will try to mess things up. It will only answer if addressed in rhyme, and it keeps calling Elizabeth different variations of her name simply to get on her nerves.
Shulman also considers what an eighth grader might do with a magical object; say, use a mermaid comb to gussy up before going to a basketball game with her friends. Luckily, Elizabeth has earned check-out privileges. Unluckily, she has to leave something major as a deposit and chooses her sense of direction.
There are some lovely little details in this book, like what Shulman does with a homeless woman (an important fairy tale trope) and her use of a set of amazing stained glass windows depicting the four seasons.
I really like Shulman's cast of characters, too, and only partly because they're multicultural: Marc is black, and Anjali is Indian American. Anjali's little sister, Jaya, is such a great character that she threatens to steal the show, one of those perfectly annoying yet too-smart and talented younger siblings. When things get really bad, it is only Jaya's seemingly small protection spell that keeps Elizabeth safe.
The Grimm Legacy is a relatively light-hearted book, despite the villain and his threats. It is also one of the more promising series starts I've seen in years. Keep in mind, Shulman has barely touched a couple of the other Special Collections: a cyberpunk collection named after William Gibson, not to mention a terrible "Keep out!" collection named after H.G. Wells. I suspect later books will do more with those, and will take a closer look at Elizabeth's stepmother and stepsisters while they're at it.
As you can see, this is an incredibly rich premise. Even so, in the wrong hands, it might have flopped. Fortunately, Shulman deftly balances the creative possibilities with strong middle school characters and their everyday concerns. (E.g., the reason Marc has been borrowing the seven-league boots!) I thoroughly look forward to watching this series develop.
Note for Worried Parents: There's a little romance here, with some kissing.