This may well be my favourite of the MAGIC SHOP books, a series of standalone stories that feature a young boy or girl entering Mr Elives’ Magic Shop and leaving with a strange artefact of some kind — one which will have taught them an important life-lesson by the end of the book (though not before causing them a heap of trouble in the interim).
Perhaps the best thing about the series is that each book is surprisingly different in tone. For instance, Russell Troy, Monster Boy (published in the US as The Monster’s Ring) was a comedy/horror, whilst Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher was a coming-of-age tale about a boy and his magical pet. In contrast, Jennifer Murdley’s Toad is a straight-up fairy tale.
Our protagonist jennifer has self-esteem issues when it comes to her physical appearance, and she’s running from a gang of bullies when she happens upon a store she’s never seen before: Elives’ Magic Supplies. By the time she leaves, she’s in possession of a talking toad called Bufo — and things only get stranger from there.
As she copes with the demands of her surprisingly conceited new pet, other obstacles emerge: a toy telephone that rings by itself, the owner of a beauty salon that seems deeply interested in Bufo, and the involvement of Sharra, the most popular girl in school whose prettiness makes Jennifer miserable.
Bruce Coville manages to incorporate plenty of elements from familiar fairy tales, such as the girl who was cursed to spill toads, snakes and other nasty creatures from her mouth, a wicked witch searching for eternal beauty, and of course — the consequences of sharing a transformative kiss with a magical toad. It turns out to be a surprisingly twisty story, with revelations concerning secret identities and magical abilities that I didn’t see coming.
Much like Shrek, Jennifer doesn’t get a magical makeover at the end of the story, and in his afterword Coville points out that to do such a thing would diminish the spirit of the book. Instead, what Jennifer gains is confidence and assurance, making this a valuable book for any young reader.
Outside the US, The Monster’s Ring may be published as Russell Troy, Monster Boy and The Skull of Truth may be published as Charlie Eggleston’s Talking Skull.