Almost the first two-thirds of this hefty novel is told through black-and-white illustrations depicting generations of the Marvels, a theater family in England, from 1766 to 1900. A jump to 1990 begins the prose narrative in which Joseph, cold, wet, and sick, arrives on the doorstop of his Uncle Albert’s Victorian home in London after running away from boarding school. He doesn’t really know Uncle Albert, but Joseph’s parents are traveling outside the country, so he stays. Uncle Albert’s neighbor, a girl named Frankie, strikes up a friendship with Joseph, and the two of them begin trying to string together information about a famous theater family, the Marvels, who clearly once lived in the house, which is a living museum in their honor.
Eleven-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher has a bad feeling about the Stranger in town, with good reason. The man is a servant of the devil after something he calls Mandragore, or Main the Gloire—“the one that did the deed.” To Hoodoo’s dismay, his own left hand is what the Stranger is looking for. Hoodoo’s father, lynched years before, tried to escape into his young son’s body but succeeded only as far as his hand. Hoodoo knew none of this before the Stranger’s arrival.
When Analyn “Apple” Yengko gets put on the dog log—a list of the ugliest girls at her southern Louisiana middle school—she finds solace in music. It’s always been a connection to her late father, who died before she and her mother came to the United States from the Philippines. Against her mom’s wishes Apple secretly takes up guitar, and she proves to be a gifted student. She also connects with new kid Evan, the first friend she’s had genuinely interested in rather than dismissive of the Filipino culture that Apple can’t escape but has always found an embarrassment.
A girl born into a boy’s body, ten-year-old George hasn’t yet confided this truth to anyone. Then she decides to try out for the part of Charlotte in the fourth grade’s dramatization of Charlotte’s Web. George thinks the play will be a vehicle to let her mom know that she’s really a girl, not a boy. But Charlotte is also the part that she wants because she loves the character. George finally tells her friend Kelly the truth, and after Kelly is cast as Charlotte, she and George conspire to have George play Charlotte in the second performance.
Peter’s Taiwanese American family is struggling since the death of his older brother, Nelson. Peter, Nelson, and their mother shared a love of baseball, so Peter tries out for a team in hopes it will spark his mother’s interest, since she’s so sad she rarely leaves the couch. But it’s Ba who gets involved, volunteering to coach Peter’s team. Angry that his father, who argued with Nelson about the Vietnam War, can’t make things at home better, Peter is now embarrassed by him as a coach. But turns out Ba has been paying attention to baseball—he even played as a boy—and to what’s happening at home more than Peter knew.
Adjusting to life in the country brings challenges and surprises for Sophie Brown. While her unemployed dad learns about small-scale farming, her mom is churning out one freelance article after another to stay on top of bills. Sophie, meanwhile, is learning to care for the chickens that once belonged to her Great Uncle Jim, only Uncle Jim’s chickens prove to be far from ordinary. Henrietta has a Forceful gaze—literally. Sophie has seen her levitate things. Chameleon turns invisible. And all six are the target of a would-be chicken thief who clearly knows they’re special. A funny, spirited story is told almost entirely through letters.
Astrid Vasquez and her best friend Nicole can barely tolerate her mother’s regular Evenings of Cultural Enrichment until she surprises them with a roller derby match. For Astrid, it’s a life-changing experience: she’s hooked on roller derby, and is especially struck by the star player of the Rose City Rollers, Rainbow Brite. When she learns that there is going to be a roller derby summer camp for girls 12-17, she immediately signs up and assumes Nicole will, too. But Nicole has other plans for the summer. She wants to attend dance camp with Astrid’s long-time nemesis and Astrid feels betrayed.
Flor’s uneventful but happy life is dealt two simultaneous blows. Her best friend Sylvie, the only other 11-year-old in their Lake Erie island community, is sent away to attend a private academy at the same time that Flor’s Mom leaves, ostensibly to care for her ill mother. But Flor knows that her grandmother’s many relatives living nearby could help her out and suspects her Mom’s leaving has more to do with the escalating arguing between her parents. Money is tight, and sometimes Flor imagines that it’s hard for her mom being the only non-white person, let alone the only Spanish-speaker, on the island.
Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are sent to rural Alabama to spend the summer of 1969 with their grandmother, Big Ma, and her mother, Ma Charles. Before putting them on the Greyhound bus, their father tells them: “… Once you cross the line from North to South all of that black power stuff is over.” At 12, Delphine is old enough to understand and believes she can keep her younger sisters in line. But 10-year-old Vonetta is enjoying the attention of Ma Charles and her half-sister and life-long rival, Aunt Miss Trotter.
“This is how you tell a story: First you introduce the main character. I’m writing this story about me, so I am the main character.” Rose loves homonyms, prime numbers, and order. It’s important to her that everyone follow the rules. She lives with her dad, Wesley, whose name is not a homonym, and her dog, Rain, whose name is. When Rain disappears during a hurricane, Rose channels her worry into a methodical search with the help of her Uncle Weldon. But in finding Rain she learns that her beloved dog, which her dad brought home for her almost a year before, belongs to someone else.