Polly and Buster, books 1 and 2, by Sally Rippin

Polly and Buster are the main characters in a series of early chapter books written and illustrated by Sally Rippen (Australia's highest selling female author).  The first two books about the pals, Polly the Witch and Buster the Monster, are The Wayward Witch and the Feelings Monster, and The Mystery of the Magic Stones (published in the US by Kane Miller Fall 2019).

Polly and Buster are next-door neighbors, and they have been best friends practically all their nine years.  But theirs is a world in which witches and monsters are not encouraged to be friends.  Monsters go to a different school, and have to sit in the back of the bus.  But Polly knows Buster is the kindest, mostly loyal friend she could ever want....which can't be said of Polly.
When smart and popular fellow witch student Marjorie seems to be willing to be friends with her, Polly goes along with badmouthing monsters, and hurts Buster pretty badly.  Still, when she sees Buster being bullied by other monsters, she comes to his rescue with a burst of magic more powerful than she's ever been able to pull off before.  

This gets twisted by the media into a story of Polly using magic to save Marjorie from a monster attack...and an anti-monster movement springs up, feeding on the already existing distrust and dislike of the witches for the monsters.

In the second book of their adventures, Polly and Buster are on the run.  The leader of the anti-monster movement (Marjorie's mother) is hunting them, the monsters are organizing a movement of their own, and Polly is being summoned by the magical stones her dead father left her on a dangerous quest to the haunted mines where he died.    With Buster at her side, Polly sends an ancient evil back to sleep, and then with Polly at his side, Buster saves Marjorie when her life is in danger.  The anti-monster mania dies down, but when book two ends, it's clear there will be more... 

Though there's magical adventures, these books are first and foremost a story about prejudice and a friendship that shows how stupid prejudice is.  Polly and Buster really are best friends, and that's great.  But although I appreciated their adventures, and found their world interesting, these books made me uncomfortable.  Buster is the more child-like of the two, the one who stuffs his face with sweets, plays games with ghosts instead of defying ancient evil, and provides comic relief.  He's also more animal-like, what with having fur and claws and stinky armpits.  Yes, he's a monster, and these attributes wouldn't have raised my eyebrows in a different sort of story.  But here, the parallels to real-world systemic racism are so clear that I felt it was going into harmful stereotype territory (Buster's not the only monster we meet, but the others troubled me too....).   

So basically, I think these books are well-intentioned, and not without charm, and I liked the stories and was interested in the magic, but I don't feel comfortable with the victims of racism being allegorically portrayed as monsters, no matter how good-hearted the monsters are.

disclaimer: review copies received from the publisher

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