Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Review of Once Upon a Toad by Heather Vogel Frederick

Cat Starr is horrified to learn that when her astronaut mother goes on a months-long mission, she will have to stay with her father. Oh, his wife is nice, and Cat's toddler half-brother is cute, but her stepsister Olivia is the very definition of "mean girl." Olivia sets out to make Cat's life miserable, especially at school. Things get worse and worse, till finally Olivia has the entire school calling Cat an awful nickname. Cat begs her mother for help, and what she gets is Great-Aunt Abyssinia, a highly colorful personality who travels in a mobile home. Abyssinia is not much help, in Cat's opinion. Pretty soon she's on her way again.

But when Cat opens her mouth to talk at breakfast the next morning, toads come out with each word. Since only her little brother sees this, Cat immediately declares herself to have laryngitis. She also finds out that Olivia has been struck, too—although when Olivia speaks, jewels fall out of her mouth. So unfair!

Naturally, the information that Olivia is spitting out jewels spreads fast. People start calling her Diamond Girl. The government shows up, and so do some criminals. Pretty soon Cat and Olivia hit the road, bonding the tiniest bit as they try to find Great-Aunt Abyssinia to see if she can help. Because Geoffrey's been kidnapped, and Olivia herself is supposed to be the ransom.

As in her well-known Mother-Daughter Book Club series, Frederick shows that she's a dab hand at creating middle school girls. Cat and Olivia seem all too real, especially when they're quarreling. Frederick's contemporary retelling of the fairy tale doesn't stick too closely to the original, but then, it doesn't need to: the basic premise takes this story a long way. And though Aunt Aby's intention of bringing the girls closer together with a spell seems pretty obvious, the storytelling is so rollicking that readers are unlikely to get hung up on the book's message. We also get some nice secondary characters, though they are much less interesting than Cat and Olivia. Here's a sample of what it's like for Cat to live with dear, sweet Olivia:
If I went upstairs to our room, Olivia would inevitably be there talking about me on the phone to Piper, or worse, sitting there with Piper in person, the two of them making loud snarky remarks about my clothes (what was wrong with jeans and a T-shirt?), my hair (why should I have to brush it more than once a day?), my lack of makeup (who wanted to smear that goop all over their face?), and everything else they could think of. Oh, and forget practicing my bassoon. I had to barricade myself in my dad's office if I wanted to do that, otherwise Olivia would moan about it hurting her ears.

Just the right summer read for 10- to 13-year-old girls who like their fantasy mixed with sisters and school, not to mention gemstones, toads, road trips, and kidnapping plots. (10 and up)

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