Child’s Play Review: Finding Serendipity by Angelica Banks

Child’s Play is a regular feature on Pop! Goes The Reader in which I review picture books, chapters books, and middle grade books for the young and the young at heart.

Title Finding Serendipity
Author Angelica Banks
Published February 3rd, 2015 by Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
Pages 288 Pages
Intended Target Audience Middle Grade
Genre & Keywords Fantasy
Part of a Series? No
Source & Format Received an advance reader copy from the publisher for review (Thanks, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group!), Paperback
Find It On GoodreadsAmazon.comChapters

In this magical tale of adventure and self-discovery, a girl and her dog venture to the dangerous and exciting land of stories.

When Tuesday McGillycuddy and her beloved dog Baxterr discover that Tuesday’s mother – the famous author Serendipity Smith – has gone missing, they set off to find her in the place that stories come from. There, Tuesday meets the pint-sized heroine Vivienne Small, duels with the hideous pirate Carsten Mothwood, and learns the truth about her remarkable dog. To save the lives of those she loves, Tuesday must summon all her wit, courage, and imagination. But how will she ever find her way home?

“He turned the handle of the door and carefully pushed it open. In the room with the honey-coloured floorboards and shelves in which all the books were piled higgledy-piggledy was a desk, two chairs, a lamp, a typewriter, and a window that stretched almost to the ceiling. The window was wide open, and Serendipity Smith was nowhere to be seen.”

Today’s the day. As Tuesday McGillycuddy dons her cherished emerald green roller skates and speeds home after her last day of school before eight glorious weeks of summer vacation, she has only one, simple wish in mind: That today be the day Serendipity Smith complete the final book in the Vivienne Small series, Vivienne Small and the Final Battle. For, unbeknownst to the her legion of fans, Serendipity is not only the author of the bestselling children’s book series, but Tuesday’s mother as well. With Serendipity’s world-renowed series now at a close, Tuesday is looking forward to the vacation the family customarily takes at the conclusion of each of Serendipity’s books. When Tuesday and her father, Denis, go to check on her progress at the end of the evening, however, the two find nothing more than an empty room, an abandoned typewriter and an open window. While Denis seems unconcerned and promises his daughter that her mother will return safe and sound come the morning, Tuesday is unable to accept Serendipity’s sudden and mysterious disappearance. After all, Vivienne Small would not simply remain in bed were her mother to go missing! Rousing all of her courage, Serendipity sneaks into her mother’s office and, seeing that Vivienne Small’s story remains unfinished, Tuesday begins typing a tale of her own. In the process, she is unknowingly tumbles headfirst into the world where stories are created. With the help of one arrogant teen author, one diminutive but determined librarian, one famous literary heroine and one ever-faithful dog, Tuesday embarks on a spirited adventure that demonstrates that the road to The End is riddled with triumphs, failures, and many, many pirates. When all is said and done, will Tuesday McGillycuddy achieve her Happily Ever After?

“Don’t you see?” he said, “You’re off! You’re off! A story has got hold of you. There’s no denying the undeniable, no dillydallying with the undelayable. Off you go, then! Follow the words, my love. That’s what a writer does. Just follow the words.”

Is there anything quite as magical as the act of storytelling? Writers invent entire worlds with nothing but their imagination to guide and inspire them, in the process uniting thousands of readers with a vast array of backgrounds and experiences for a moment, however brief, because of the sheer power of their words. Whether the end result be long or short, poetry or prose, fiction or non, there’s something undeniably miraculous about the act of bringing a tale to life. As a result, I have always had a fascination with the creative process and how it differs from one artist to the next. So, when I learned of a middle grade novel set in the very world where this process takes place, I couldn’t resist requesting it immediately. Although I would argue that this novel doesn’t necessarily live up to the immense amount of promise inherent in its undeniably special premise, Finding Serendipity remains a sweet, creative adventure that blurs the line between fiction and reality and explores the extraordinary, limitless potential of the human imagination.

“I think that characters in stories have their own lives to live, and we are not important in those lives. When we are with them, we are as real to them as they are to us, and they allow us to share in their adventures. But when we leave, we slowly fade away from their minds. Not entirely, of course. To them, we become something like a dream or a distant memory. I think that while it is our business to keep them vivid in our hearts and minds, it is not their business to do the same for us.”

Intelligent, enterprising, loyal and brave, even going so far as to risk her own life to save those she loves most, Tuesday McGillycuddy is a fascinating and compelling protagonist. Perhaps what is most refreshing of all, however, is the fact that Tuesday often doesn’t have all the answers. There are several moments in the text when Tuesday is at a loss as to how to proceed and must rely on others to help her find her way, underscoring the importance of a support system and that there is no shame in seeking help when one needs it. One aspect of the novel that I did have a problem with, however, was Tuesday’s rather complicated relationship with her mother. Serendipity Smith lives two lives. One as a successful, celebrated, famous author. One as an ordinary wife and mother. And never the twain shall meet. Tuesday explains that she understands the practical benefits of Serendipity’s pseudonym, but my heart ached for the child who was excluded from such a significant portion of her mother’s life. Serendipity’s ‘alter ego’ is so elaborate that Tuesday and Denis are forced to attend her book signings as fans rather than family because Serendipity’s readers are entirely unaware that she is married, let alone that she has a child. Most troubling of all, Tuesday lives in constant fear of disclosing her mother’s true identity and has to stop herself from doing so on more than one occasion. She desperately wishes to share her mother’s success and talent with the world but is prevented from doing so. The constant vigilance required of Tuesday seemed like too great a responsibility and a burden for a child her age. This ever-present conflict in Tuesday and Serendipity’s relationship felt cruel and entirely unnecessary, particularly given the great number of other obstacles that Tuesday is forced to confront throughout her journey. This concept seems all the more unnecessary when compared to the reality. Authors as successful and famous as J.K Rowling have had no qualms about sharing details of their private family lives with the public. The idea that Serendipity is so concerned for her privacy that she must perpetuate an entirely separate, fictional public persona is patently absurd and offensive, all the more so when one considers the toll this might take on one’s child.

“I can assure you, Tuesday McGillycuddy,” said the Librarian quietly, “that you can’t get here because of a typewriter. You came because you have a story inside of you wanting to get out. What happened might appear to be magical, but the magic comes from nowhere but within you. It doesn’t matter whether you write on a fancy laptop or an old typewriter, or, for that matter, with a pen on a paper napkin. All of that is beside the point. The point in that stories want to be told. Stories have a power of their own, and they choose their writers carefully. But you can’t write a story until you’ve felt it. Breathed it in. Walked with your characters. Talked with them. That’s why you came here. To live your story.”

The majority of this novel takes place within the magical domain in which narratives are created, a world in which stories are not composed simply of words and punctuation but of living, breathing entities, literary heroines, diabolical pirates and winged dogs. This entirely unique setting allows Banks to nimbly transform abstract concepts of imagination and creation into a navigable, three dimensional world that both entertains and educates. Middle grade readers will learn to better understand the intricacies of narrative structure and construction, all while following Tuesday and Baxterr’s rollicking adventures over the Twining Bridge, through the Peppermint Forest, and into the Restless Sea. The author’s descriptions of this vast and varied landscape are rich with detail and transport the reader into the fanciful, fictional world of Serendipity Smith where food gives one courage and purpose and instructional manuals and escape hatches unexpectedly appear when they are needed most of all. Rich descriptions aside, that isn’t to say that this novel is without flaws. Banks’ narrative voice was a little more simplistic than I ordinarily prefer and as a result I didn’t find Finding Serendipity as compulsively readable as other middle grade novels I have enjoyed in the past, such as All Four Stars and Hook’s Revenge. The pacing is inconsistent at best, primarily because Tuesday’s thrilling adventures in the land of stories are interspersed with scenes of Denis and Serendipity who, unbeknownst to Tuesday, has returned home and is desperately trying to reach her daughter. This interrupted the natural flow of the story and often brought the otherwise fast-paced momentum to a grinding halt. These scenes also added little, if anything, to the overall plot, and only served to underline Serendipity’s lack of faith in her daughter’s ability to find her own way home. While I appreciated what the author was able to accomplish intellectually, Tuesday’s story failed to resonate with me in any significant manner emotionally. That said, I would not hesitate to recommend this book to younger readers who I have little doubt will be enchanted by this story filled with magic and imagination or to educators and librarians for whom Finding Serendipity has the potential to act as the basis for spirited discussion regarding the differences between fiction and reality and the nature of the creative process.

“You are the writer, Tuesday. This is not your mother’s world anymore. You’ve made it your own. So it is up to you to find an ending that makes your eyes sparkle and your heart race. That, dear girl, is the way to The End!”
Tuesday nodded.
Imagine,” the Librarian whispered.

Although not without flaws, Finding Serendipity would make the perfect choice for tentative or reluctant young readers searching for a simple, straightforward story that will take them on a magical adventure through the land where stories are born. Banks plays with conventional concepts of narrative structure, storytelling and the creative process and reinvents them in imaginative and exciting new ways. The book also provides a wonderful opportunity for classroom and/or library discussion, touching upon topics such as the importance of finding one’s voice, the complex and unique nature of the creative process and, most importantly of all, is an unabashed celebration of the power of the written word.

Please Note: All quotations included in this review have been taken from an advanced reader copy and therefore might be subject to change.

Still not sure this is the right book for you? Why not listen to what some other bloggers had to say about it?

● Pernille @ Mrs. Ripp Reads wrote “The book offers adventure, magic, and a heroine who may not always know the answer but continues toward The End no matter how hard her journey may become. I loved the message of the book and cannot wait to hand it to students.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Alexa @ Alexa Loves Books wrote “Without a doubt, Finding Serendipity is a new gem among children’s books, one that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to readers both young and young at heart.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Emma @ My Book Corner wrote Finding Serendipity has pirates and adventure, sailing ships and oodles of magic, and a silver thread that creates words and stories…you’ll never read a book in quite the same way again!” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for linking up to my review, Jen! I thoroughly enjoyed Finding Serendipity. As someone who likes to write and tell stories, I thought it was an excellent way of simplifying the process of storytelling – and even making it more imaginative. Glad you liked it, in spite of the issues you had with it!
    Alexa S. recently posted…All You Need is LoveMy Profile

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Hi! I’m Jen! I’m a thirty-something introvert who loves nothing more than the cozy comfort of home and snuggling my two rescue cats, Pepper and Pancakes. I also enjoy running, jigsaw puzzles, baking and everything Disney. Few things bring me more joy than helping a reader find the right book for them!