The Familiars

by Adam Jay Epstein and
Andrew Jacobson.

Ages 8 to 12.

Pretending to be someone else is asking for trouble. No matter how clever you are, there’s a chance somebody will suspect. And that chance will make your stomach feel as though it’s tied in knots.

Aldwyn the alley cat finds himself in such a situation in “The Familiars.” While trying to steal a flounder from the town fishmonger (someone who sells fish), he gets caught in a trap. He narrowly escapes, but evil animal bounty hunter Grimslade is after him. On the run, Aldwyn sneaks into a shop. The shop is filled with animals in cages, so he climbs into an empty cage to hide.

But these are no ordinary animals. These are magical creatures known as familiars. They are to be paired with a spellcaster — a witch or wizard — so the two can become companions for life.

Jack, an 11-year-old wizard in training, enters the shop to select his familiar. When he spies Aldwyn, the shop owner says the cat has the power of telekinesis (the ability to move objects with only his mind):

“Aldwyn couldn’t believe how mistaken the store owner was. He was an ordinary alley cat, whose only real talent was for getting into trouble.”

Jack feels a connection with the cat and, with no proof of magical powers, chooses Aldwyn for his familiar.

The cat’s life instantly improves — no more stealing food or running from bounty hunters — but he faces new challenges. Jack’s fellow wizard trainees, Marianne and Dalton, have familiars who have actual magical abilities. Skylar the blue jay is an illusionist. Gilbert the tree frog has the power of divination: He looks into puddles and sometimes sees visions.

Skylar and Gilbert ask Aldwyn about telekinesis, and the cat confuses the word for telepathy, the power to read someone’s mind. So Aldwyn pretends he has both powers!

The others don’t ask too many questions at first. But when Jack, Marianne and Dalton are kidnapped, the animals are the only ones who can save them. Skylar and Gilbert are counting on Al­dwyn to free their three loyals (human companions) from enchanted chains.

Aldwyn wants to tell the truth, but he fears that the familiars will reject him and that he will never see Jack again. The former alley cat has to use his real talents — street smarts — to prove that he, too, is worthy of being called a familiar.

— Christina Barron

Next week:

The Tale of Despereaux

By Kate DiCamillo. Ages 8 to 12.

Despereaux Tilling is a mouse who lives in a castle with his family. But he doesn’t fit in. He is sent to the dungeon for talking to a human. In the dungeon, he meets a rat named Roscuro and a servant girl named Miggery Sow. All three are outsiders and all three are looking to bring light to their troubled lives.