J. Elle made waves with her Wings of Ebony YA duology, and now, she’s paving a road through the middle grade space. In her latest book, A Taste of Magic, Elle introduces readers to Kyana Turner, a sixth grader who just found out she’s a witch! Now, Kyana attends Saturday classes at Park Row Magick Academy (PRMA) to hone her skills. It’s not all great, though, when PRMA and its students face what seems like an impossible obstacle. Determined to overcome it, Kyana cooks up a plan to save PRMA and its students.
Elle pours so much heart and soul into this book that it’s impossible to not find something to love about it. Broadly speaking, one of its strongest aspects is how alive everything feels — in a literal and figurative sense. Elle’s worldbuilding is rich and vibrant, from the way she describes Park Row, to the scents that come from a hearty home-cooked meal, and the magic itself within the story. She includes familiar aspects and adds her own inventive spin on them. (For example, curl pattern activated wands. How cool is that?!) Every detail is important and lends itself to the story in some way. Elle is deliberate in what she includes, not wasting a single opportunity to revisit each crumb she lays out.
One thing that’s also stuck with me since reading is the emphasis Elle places on home cooking and food in general. For starters, every meal she includes is bound to have readers’ mouths watering solely from the way she describes everything. Throughout, it’s also clear how food plays an important role in Kyana’s life. It connects her with her mother and grandmother, her ancestors, and her magic. Moreover, it connects Kyana to her community. It illustrates how tight-knit Kyana is with those around her, especially those she regularly encounters. As I was reading this book, I only ever equated food to love. It brought back fond memories, and I hope that other readers gain that experience while reading.
Kyana shines as a protagonist. She’s a big-hearted, clever, and endearingly funny young girl. (I’m personally a fan of her distaste towards Math.) She also comes from a family who struggles financially, with her mother working multiple jobs to keep them afloat. As such, Kyana helps however she can, and in Kyana’s home life, Elle continues to keep every element of this story connected. For Kyana, magic is an opportunity she once could only dream about, even if it’s just to help more with household chores. Elle takes care to highlight how the Turners’ financial standing affects Kyana’s life. In many ways, it bars her from activities her peers don’t think twice about. But despite this, Elle preserves Kyana’s childhood. She ensures readers don’t forget the circumstances that have shaped Kyana, but Elle allows Kyana her wonder, her middle school drama, and her childish moments. She grows from her mistakes and embraces her strengths.
Similarly, Kyana’s friendships also provide young readers a safe space to lose themselves in. Like anyone, Kyana faces her ups and downs, which is most notable with her best friend Naomi (aka Nae). As Kyana must keep her magic a secret, she and Nae face some tension. Regardless, they continue to hold affection for one another. Through every frustration, Elle protects their friendship while providing them the space to feel everything. Ashley (aka Ash) is another wonderful character and complement to Kyana. Readers will enjoy watching Ash grow and flourish as a character just as much as they do Kyana.
Elle has already demonstrated her prowess with her YA novels, and she continues to do so with A Taste of Magic. She creates an enchanting contemporary fantasy that’s accessible to any reader who picks it up. While magic, of course, is interwoven into the fabric of the story, Elle deftly grounds her world in reality. With or without its fantasy elements, the book offers young readers like Kyana and her friends a loving reflection of themselves. (I cannot emphasize enough the LOVE and comfort that just pours out of this book.) They will walk away with a sense of empowerment, a host of wonderful life lessons, and the knowledge that they are seen and understood.
A Taste of Magic releases on August 30. Pre-order your copy here.