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Off the Shelves: The Universe of Fair" is a fun romp for young readers
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'The Universe of Fair'

By Leslie Bulion

4 out of 5 bookmarks.

Have you considered buying your child a fun book to read as a holiday gift this year, but you’re not sure what would be a good pick?

Maybe your child isn’t into the fantasy magic-themed kids books that dominate the bookstore shelves, or you hesitate to pick up a book that looks intriguing but you’ve heard nothing about it. Here is my offering for an enjoyable, funny, relatable story for your middle-school readers (and for adults, who may find the story nostalgic): Leslie Bulion’s “The Universe of Fair,” released earlier this year.

In this light-hearted novel, we meet Miller, an 11-year-old boy whose highlight of the whole year is attending his hometown’s annual fair — although this year, he is hoping that he can attend the fair by himself, rather than be stuck with his annoying little sister Penny, his micromanaging mother and his constantly busy father.

Despite his best efforts to prove that he is responsible, things don’t seem to be going in Miller’s favor. Because both of his parents will be unavailable, they arrange for Miller and Penny to be chaperoned by a neighbor, along with two of Penny’s schoolmates. When the morning of the fair arrives, the neighbor has a severe migraine and cannot go anywhere. So Miller decides to take things into his own hands, and escorts the kids to the fair himself.

This choice spawns a series of mishaps and wild antics, involving flying death's-heads, a mysterious man who may or may not be a ghost, Miller’s dad’s super-delicious lemon meringue pie and wild goose chases as kids seem to start disappearing left and right. Throughout his day, Miller learns the true meaning of being responsible, that it is more than showing that he can take care of himself, but that he can take care of his family and friends.

What’s so charming about “Universe of Fair” is Bulion’s down-to-earth, casual writing that puts her characters in common situations, ones we have all been in (we all know the feeling of possibly missing an event that is important to us) and yet maintains a subtle level of tension that keeps you pulled into Miller’s narrative.

Miller himself is more than just the quintessential nerd (I was thankful there was no “bully” antagonist in the novel), but someone who finds joy in both the intricate intellectual and the simple, carefree activities of being a kid. Penny is darling despite her consistent attempts to aggravate her older brother. For me, in particular, I enjoyed the sibling dynamic because it reminded me so much of my relationship with my brother at that age (and yes, I was the typical little sister pain in the neck). On an adult level, remembering how much I as a kid loved going to the short-lived hometown carnivals brought back fond memories.

The addition of Frank W. Dormer’s illustrations is a perfect touch, depicting scenes from the story in a style reminiscent of children’s drawings. It keeps with the cheerful, cartoony tone of the book and some of the images will give kids a good laugh.

An homage to local fairs, a testament to the meaning of family, and a clever perspective on a young boy’s view of responsibility, “The Universe of Fair” would make a great gift this season for an avid young reader, and would be a great story for parents and their children to read along together.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? Email her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.

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