Frances Schoonmaker kicks off her middle-grade trilogy with the magical ‘The Black Alabaster Box’

“The Black Alabaster Box,” by Frances Schoonmaker. (Auctus Publishers/TNS)

Someone was asking about the perfect formula for a middle-grade children’s book. Having been a child once myself, I brought some credentials to the discussion.

But resting more on my adult intuition, I thought for only a second (showing youthful impatience) and offered up these three traits: (1) rooted in fact with a semi-educational bent; (2) steeped in adventure and cliffhanging wonder of what’s coming next; and (3) designed to stimulate the imagination with fantasy and improbable occurrences as real as the author’s storytelling can convince.

Perhaps, it would have been better to ask Frances Schoonmaker, a former schoolteacher, professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the author of “The Black Alabaster Box” (Auctus Publishers), the first book in The Last Crystal trilogy. “I’ve always loved the history of things and reading books that create imaginative worlds,” she says. “In the Trilogy, there is room for fact and fancy.” Her parents had a great sense of adventure and, her mother was always saying, “That would make a great book.”

A WELL-ROUNDED MIDDLE-GRADE NOVEL

She must have taken her mother’s words to heart, because “The Black Alabaster Box” checks off all my requirements for the perfect middle-grade book. Is it any wonder that readers will get so absorbed that they likely won’t notice the box itself is not even mentioned until the middle of the story?

We start with a tale of the Old West. The Willis family leaves its home in St. Louis and joins the wagon train along the Santa Fe Trail to California where it hopes to start a medical school. Young Grace, our protagonist, is a reluctant participant and her mother asks whether she is going to cling to her misery or accept her adventure. If she only knew what that adventure would become.

Along the way, she wakes up from a deep sleep in the wagon train only to discover she has been kidnapped by the shady, untrustworthy Swathmore family. Grace is told her parents are dead and she is now subject to her abductor’s agenda.

She has her chance to escape, and she does. But as she ponders her next direction, a mysterious man with a calming presence who looks like an angel with silver-gray hair and a well-trimmed beard enters the picture. He becomes her protector and leads the girl out of danger. Is the so-called Mr. Nichols real? Is he a figment of her imagination? Or something else?

A STORY OF MAGIC AND MYSTERY

Eventually, when they return to a big city, readers are introduced to Celeste, an attractive, bossy and powerful woman who dangles people by her fingertips. We learn that she has access to crystals, which she keeps hidden in a black alabaster box, that have the power to restore Earth to its natural beauty. Celeste, however, has chosen to use the crystals for her personal desires. Mr. Nichols is aware of this and, along with Grace, sets a plan in motion to take on the evil Celeste.

In “The Black Alabaster Box,” Frances Schoonmaker has given young readers a captivating story full of excitement and adventure. But she has also thrown in some difficult life situations that present children with valuable lessons. The narrative is swift and fluid, and the characters are interesting and well-defined.

There’s so much to like about this book, and it is highly recommended. It is a great example of how children can experience the magic of reading. Speaking of magic, does the author have us all believing in it? In the words of Mr. Nichols, “We all have a little magic in us, don’t you think?”

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