Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Friday, February 26, 2016

Far From Ordinary

More than thirty years ago a tale was told which found a place in my repertoire of spooky stories.  It's about an ordinary town, much like our (your) town, where an ordinary family lives.  The parents are ordinary as are their children.  They live in an ordinary house on an ordinary street lined with other ordinary houses.  BUT...

The extraordinary thing about this family and their home is it's right next door to the local cemetery.  At this point listeners lean in a little closer, making a tighter circle.  This is exactly what we do when we're hooked on a good book.   We lean into the story by wrapping ourselves literally in a cozy blanket and figuratively let the characters, setting and narrative envelope us.

Today time stood still as I entered the anything-but-ordinary world found within the pages of The Key to Extraordinary (Scholastic Press, February 23, 2016).  As in her debut book, A Snicker of Magic, two years ago, this story takes us on a remarkable journey.  Along the paths in which Natalie Lloyd leads us we feel our hearts grow stronger and larger as her words feed familiar and hidden needs.

It is a known fact that the most extraordinary moments in a person's life come disguised as ordinary days.
It is a known fact for me, at least. 
Because that morning started out mostly the same as all mornings before: I woke up to an ache in my chest, the smell of chocolate and the sound of the ghost making a racket in the kitchen.

There is no ghost in the kitchen when twelve-year-old Emma Pearl Casey gets to the bottom of the stairs.  It's gone but her college age brother Topher is stirring up a batch of the famous family beverage, Boneyard Brew, in the Cocoa Cauldron.  She and her brother live with their Granny Blue in the rooms above their bakery, Boneyard Cafe, in a town called Blackbird Hollow.  The ache in her chest, the Big Empty, has been there since her mother died.  They are joined within minutes by Bearclaw, Bear, her small rescue dog.

Emma steps outside on the back porch to begin her day giving tours through the Blackbird Hollow Cemetery which happens to be spread before her.  (Yes, readers, the graveyard and her backyard are one and the same.)  As people pass through the gates we are introduced to the townspeople and those extra special to Emma, her Uncle Periwinkle and Aunt Greta.  A stranger appears, Waverly Valentine, who asks about the most famous ghost in Blackbird Hollow, The Conductor.  According to local legend, The Conductor appears and sings if summoned by someone pure in heart.  In the dead of night words in the melody tell of a treasure hidden hundreds of years ago.  Scores of people have hunted for this wealth; some to never return.

There are some more things you need to know about Emma and the rare wonderful people living in Blackbird Hollow.  Emma is next in a long line of remarkable women, The Wildflowers, who each have had a Destiny Dream; a field of blue flowers appears holding an item signifying their life's path.  They record their dream and how events unfold in the Book of Days.  Tall spirited Cody Belle Chitwood is Emma's very best friend, through thick and thin.  A third person returns to town, Earl Chase, who has not talked since a horrific experience with a tornado.

Throughout the days in Blackbird Hollow complete with the dancing and singing jamboree nights at the cafe, a dark cloud comes to rest over Emma, Topher and Granny Blue.  There is one who would take away everything important to them, a villain of the worst sort.  The arrival of her Destiny Dream gives Emma an answer but it's not clear what she needs to do.  With the help of her friends, a ghost, the promise she made to her mother, a Gypsy rose summer and a frightening storm, true treasures are discovered and a dreamed destiny takes shape.

When Natalie Lloyd writes you have to remind yourself to breathe.  Her small town characters live their lives generously, even the one who rarely smiles.  The conversations between the adults and the adults and the children are as real as rain. They accept the possibility of ghosts in their graveyard, feeling The Touch and the blooming of flowers in every season of the year.  They find joy whenever they can despite the hardships they may face.  Where else but Blackbird Hollow will you find a grandmother with tattoos who used to be a boxer and still rides a motorcycle.

The descriptions of the locations in and around the town are so vivid; you'll find yourself planning your next vacation as a trip to Tennessee.  The graveyard with the names on the headstones, the forbidden portion of the cemetery, the Thicket, the Wailing Woods, the mountains and fields, are steeped in history and mystery.  The weather, wind, rain, thunder and lightning, add to the atmosphere.

One of the other things which will have you either grabbing a highlighter or using an entire package of sticky notes is how Natalie Lloyd chooses her words.  They are somewhat alliterative; Blackbird Hollow, Boneyard Cafe, Granny Blue, Wailing Woods and Destiny Dreams.  If you were to read this book aloud you will be inclined to sing at times.  Here are some sample passages.

I made my way through the kitchen door and onto the back porch.  The screen door slapped shut behind me, and I stared out over the dreamy-morning world.  The dark night had already faded to a pretty pale blue at the horizon.  A cool wind prickled my skin and rustled the branches of the big oak in the center of the field.  The leaves made a sound that reminded me of breath, which was kind of strange considering all that lay before me.  As far as I could see, the headstones and statues of Blackbird Hollow Cemetery peeked up from the mist.

The book spine crackled underneath my fingertips when I opened it.  It sounded like my spine when I first wake up and stretch in the morning, and I wondered if it was possible for a book to come alive that same way.  To tell you things.  To change the course of your days.

The sadness was heavy in Blue's voice when she answered. "Don't know if we can hold out that long."
"Do you remember what Mama said about fear?" I asked.  "She said fear is just a flashlight that helps you find your courage."
Blue rested her hand on my shoulder.  "Well, she knew a thing or two about courage.  That's for sure.  She was a brave lady."
"We are all brave ladies," I said.  "We're Wildflowers."

My book after I finished reading it today.  
My copy of The Key to Extraordinary written by Natalie Lloyd is brimming with sticky notes.  You will find yourself reading portions of it again and again.  You will find yourself reciting phrases aloud to listen to the music they create.  We can never have too many true friends, love or hope.  It's all here, springing forth and spreading outward like the flowers in Blackbird Hollow.

You will want to learn more about Natalie Lloyd.  You can do this by following the link attached to her name taking you to her website.  She has a blog linked here. At TeachingBooks.net she talks about both her books reading excerpts from each of them.  She also talks about the pronunciation of her name.  The artist who designed the cover for this book, Gilbert Ford, has an interesting post about the process here.  Enjoy the trailer created by Scholastic Book Fairs.  


  1. Thank you, Margie, for this extraordinary review that so well captures the magic of this book. As with A Snicker of Magic, Natalie Lloyd has created lovable, quirky characters, a captivating setting, and a delightful storyline that truly dazzles readers. But like Granny Blue's Boneyard Brew, this book is infused with a secret ingredient - a beautiful feeling of love and hope that permeates every line, every word. Reading this book (and talking about it with friends) leaves you feeling warm and cozy, with a certainty that anything is possible. A very special book!

    1. You're welcome, Victoria. Her books take you to a place your heart needs. You truly wish you could live there. Perhaps we can create little Blackbird Hollow spaces as we talk about this book with others. I think I'm going to add a giveaway.

  2. This one has been on my radar. Now moving it up to top of TBR list after reading your review, as usual.

    1. I'm glad Allison that you are moving it up to the top of your stack. We can all use this kind of book to lift our spirits; to hang onto hope and love.