Summer Reading and The Alchemyst

The Alchemyst - Michael Scott, Erik Singer

Like most schools in this crazy age of the Common Core testocracy, the district I live in does some things right (and some things really wrong).  One of the things I think they do right is their middle-school summer reading program. Each year the students are given a choice of 3 – 4 books on a selected theme and a guiding question. The offered books are a nice balance of difficulty and genre, and mostly are books released in the last 10 years. The students are asked to read one book over the summer, and arrive on the first day of school with selected pieces of text evidence demonstrating how the book related to the guiding theme. During the first week of school, they form small groups to discuss what they read and use the text evidence gathered over the summer to support their points.


This summer, the theme for the 7th graders was “life’s journey” and one of the reading choices was The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott.


My about-to-be 7th grade son chose The Alchemyst, loved it, and over the course of the fall has read and re-read the entire 6-book series multiple times. My precocious 5th grader has also fallen into the world of Sophie and Josh Newman and devoured the series. My husband is about to start book 5 of the series and I’m lagging behind and only partway through book 2.


While The Alchemyst was shelved YA, I would characterize it as more of a Middle Grade book. I enjoyed the mashup of mythologies - Hecate lives in a Yggdrasil tree??? - but found the plot rather formulaic and keep picking up other things to read instead of finishing The Magician. I read The Alchemyst at about the same time as the re-read of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and it was rather fun having two different Nicholas Flamels in my head at the same time.


My husband was reminded of Silverlock by John Myers Myers, a similar mashup but most certainly NOT for middle grade students. Michael Scott has a wonderful time throwing a mix of gods, legends, and mythological creatures together, stirring heavily, and mixing things up. (For instance the vampire who helps our heroes happens to be a vegetarian) Mr. Scott then keeps the reader from wondering too much about the mashup – a Greek Goddess in a Yggdrasil tree? Really? – by moving the plot forward at breakneck pace. We got exhausted just reading it, and yet our heroes barely sleep, rarely spend time making sense of the wonder-du-hour, and seem immune to stress and shock. But then, the plot has moved on again and the reader must put these thoughts aside and try to catch up.


So the fast pace and the mix of gods, critters, and critter-gods combine to make a lot of fun. And the pace helps, no, insists that the reader suspend belief. But once disbelief sneaks into the story, it lingers a bit. The books are great fun and are likely to appeal to fans of Rick Riordan. But they are probably best read in a total binge or with a separation of about a month between volumes. Anything in-between falls risks running the reader’s adrenaline dry and leaving them exhausted in their chair, reaching for something else.


Thanks are due to DH for collaborating with me on this review and being far more articulate about these books than I am being tonight.