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Book review: Winston Chu vs. The Whimsies

Middle-grade fiction

by Stacey Lee

This lively tween tale dips deftly into Chinese mythology while remaining completely modern. Twelve-year-old Winston Chu has a loving mom, an older and younger sister, and a tight circle of friends who support him, but the loss of his father in a war-related accident still shadows his life. His mom is struggling to find a job, his older sister Phillipa is moody and withdrawn, and Winston doesn’t quite know how to move on.

Enter Mr. Pang’s Whimsies. In a setup reminiscent of Bruce Coville’s Magic Shop books, old Mr. Pang runs a Boy on flying skateboard over San Franciscostrange, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t store, packed with enchanted objects like Kick-Me Boots and Warm Fuzzy Ukuleles. In return for an accidental good deed involving a pie, Mr. Pang offers Winston the chance to pick any store item that catches his eye — then tricks him into taking a broom and dustpan. These enchanted items, as it turns out, are inhabited by Lady Cloud Weaver and the Cowherd she loves. They are trying to avoid the wrath of the lady’s mother, but end up disappearing first Winston’s soccer jersey, then his goldfish, and finally his little sister Coco.

Working with his soccer buddies, Winston tries to get to the root of these happenings and rescue his baby sister, whose spirit has been swapped with that of a changeling. But part of the story’s strength is that it doesn’t just focus on the mythological aspects. Along the way, Winston deals with recognizable middle-school problems, like cruel assistant principals, candy smuggling, and trying to impress his new-girl crush, Dani.

The book is full of clever, snarky asides, sharp dialogue, and vivid descriptions like, “If the two islands were brothers, Alcatraz would be the crook, while Treasure Island, and old naval station, would be the dutiful one who had joined the military.” Author Lee strikes a balance between poignance and silliness, which readers of Rick Riordan Presents are bound to lap up eagerly and ask for more. Recommended.

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