Here at Seven Days, our readership is adult, which means the books we review generally are, too. But, as any grown-up who’s ever been ensnared by the Harry Potter series or a dogeared copy of Anne of Green Gables knows, good fiction for kids knows no age limit.
This week, as part of the Parenting Issue, we review two recent books by local authors that aim for what publishers call the “middle-grade” market (ages 8 to 12). But both are the kind of books parents may just find themselves reading on the sly — which means, of course, they’re also great read-aloud bets.
Welcome to the Jungle
Remember how it felt to open a Tintin book and get swept into an exotic adventure? Imagine one of Hergé’s classics without the graphic aspect (including those creepy racial caricatures). Now imagine an Indiana Jones movie that features carefully researched, nonpreachy lessons on ancient cultures alongside the action hijinks, and you’re starting to get the idea of Middleworld, a novel from Norwich authors J & P Voelkel.
Middleworld’s hero is a 14-year-old Bostonian named Max Murphy, whose parents are archaeologists specializing in the ancient Maya. Max is more interested in the kind of intellectual stimulation that can be attained by manipulating a joystick. But he has to change his sedentary ways when a series of unfortunate events lands him in the fictional Central American nation of San Xavier — and his parents, supposedly on a dig there, vanish without a trace.
Max’s spoiled-American-kid attitude may wear on the reader in the novel’s early pages. But once he finds himself lost in the rainforest with a tart-tongued modern Maya girl named Lola and her two trained monkeys, things pick right up. Soon a supernatural element enters the story, and Max and Lola have to set about saving the world.
The novel’s action is fast-paced enough to appeal to the target demo, while adults will like the authors’ smart treatment of the culture-clash theme — and their comic acumen. Take the book’s primer on the 12 Maya lords of death, who have names such as Demon of Pus, Blood Gatherer and Scab Stripper. “Sounds like the lineup for a heavy metal festival,” notes Max.
Best of all, the Voelkels’ novel kicks off a fantasy trilogy in which the hero does not — so far, anyway — appear to be a Potteresque Chosen One. He’s just a regular kid trying to grow up enough to do the right thing.
Middleworld was first published in 2007 (see sidebar), but it’s getting more attention this time around. Look for the authors on the “Today” show later this month — Al Roker just chose the novel for his Book Club for Kids.
Bad Old Days
Plattsburgh author Bonnie Shimko’s third novel for tweens and teens, The Private Thoughts of Amelia E. Rye, would make a great birthday present. It has a prestigious publisher, a genteel cover and one of those “serious” premises that tend to appeal more to parents than to kids: interracial friendship in a “flea-size” upstate New York town in the 1960s.
You need read only the first chapter, though, to discover that Amelia is less high-toned and more fun than its exterior suggests. Or perhaps only the title of that first chapter: “My mother tried to kill me before I was born. Even then I disappointed her.”
When we meet Amelia, her lot in life appears Dickensian: Her late-in-life mom barely tolerates her; her dad has absconded with the “town hussy”; and her older siblings reside in a factory town, an asylum and a state prison, respectively. Then, into her life skips Fancy Nelson, the first African American kid in school, a little dynamo who sweetly threatens to “pulverize everybody” who gives her trouble. Amelia couldn’t make a better friend.
The novel offers readers of all ages a dose of Roald Dahl-style twisted humor and the satisfactions of a fairy tale: Decent, smart, bold characters soundly trounce mean, cowardly ones. By the end, though, Amelia has become a more nuanced story, with shades of gray older readers will appreciate. Maybe you can please kids and librarians at the same time.