I'm a children's librarian so I get to see a lot of children's books pass through my hallowed public library doors. Lots. But a person can't see everything so once in a while I like to traipse down to my friendly neighborhood bookstore to see what's on the shelves. I skip into the children's section, peruse the titles there, skim one or two just to see if I'd like to read them later, and that's it. End of story. Normally. This past week-end I skipped in as per usual and skimmed the titles of the new fall releases. A new P.E. Kerr... something by F.E. Higgins... and a new Margaret Peterson Haddix. Now there's a treat! I'm not the biggest Haddix fan in the world but I'm rather fond of her style. Kids love her Shadow Children series and Running Out of Time was a fun concept (so much so that perhaps director M. Night Shymalan thought so too). But I've never really fallen for a Haddix novel, you know? The writing just usually doesn't do it for me. Maybe it's the tone or the content or something, but I wasn't really digging the Haddix. Until now. You see, as I sat down in the bookstore's café to read a chapter I found myself sucked into the story. Does it contain some lickety split action sequences and leaps that stretch at my adult credulity? Sure. But I also feel that this may be some of Haddix's best work. It doesn't necessarily stand on its own due to its cliffhanger ending, but if you want to hand a kid something fun, fast-paced, and deeply mysterious then this is the book to surrender.
Thirteen years ago an airline attendant saw something impossible. When the plane appeared on the tarmac it somehow appeared without anyone realizing it had landed. Stranger still, it contained no pilot, no crew, no adults at all. Just thirty-six babies strapped in their seats. Fast forward to present day when new friends Jonah and Chip check the former's mailbox. There, resting inside is an unsigned note that simply reads, "You are one of the missing." A cruel prank? It certainly seems that way until Chip gets the same letter. Then they both get a follow-up that reads "Beware! They're coming back to get you." They? They who? There doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to the notes until Chip discovers that he and Jonah have something in common. They were both adopted. And with the help of Jonah's sister Katherine there's more to discover. Why does an FBI agent have information about the boys' birth parents? Why did Katherine see a man appear and disappear in an office one day? Who's been sneaking around Jonah's room, looking through his things? And what's the real story behind that plane? The answers lead the kids to discover their connection to seemingly impossible events.
I'm a sucker for books that contain anonymous notes. Such letters appear in stories like The Mailbox by Audrey Shafer and you librarians out there will understand what I mean when I say that they make it easy to booktalk titles. I also love mysteries, frightening moments, and plucky protagonists. Actually that final item is a bit odd in this book. Though our hero in this story is clearly Jonah, the boy spends much of the novel with his fingers in his ears going "LALALALALALALA!" while his friend and sister do much of the investigating on his behalf. Credit where credit is due, though. The kids really do discover a ton of information, and in a way that makes sense to the plot and is plausible. Anytime a kid in a book breaks into a locked room with a hairpin my eyebrows make a break for my hairline and it takes a while to coax them down. No coaxing was required as I read Haddix's novel. My eyebrows remained firmly in place the entire time.
Authors today face several conundrums when it comes to writing contemporary realistic (or realistic-ish) fiction. First of all, how are your child characters living in the suburbs getting around? It's not as if a lot of suburban kids take the bus, after all. Like most authors, Haddix goes for the old bike riding solution. The next problem? Cell phones. In the past your characters would find themselves in a perilous situation and be helpless and unable to alert anyone to their location. Cell phones, fortunately, can only work where there's a signal so chalk that up to another problem solved. It's easy to work around contemporary technology, but a good writer should make use of it. If a kid has a phone with camera capabilities, then that should come in handy. And Haddix definitely sees electronic devices as a way to aid and abet the action rather than hinder it. Other authors take note. Sure, technology changes but when it comes to something like cell phone cameras such devices will be around for a while. Might as well make your book believable by utilizing them.
Okay. So here's my official SPOILER ALERT warning. If you would like to be surprised by the secret of this book, stop reading this review right now. I liked it. Nuff said.
They gone? Great. As those of you who have read the book are aware, the secret behind this story is that the babies on the plane is that they're all famous children that died sometime in history. The Lindbergh baby. The kids that Richard III slaughtered. Princess Anastasia (and her little bro). People from the future pay big bucks to raise such kids, but we never really learn who Chip and Jonah are. We can probably rule out the children mentioned in the book, so who does that leave? My hope is that Jonah will turn out to be The Dauphin. That'd be pretty cool, right? As for Chip, why not Henry VIII's kid, Edward VI? Both are famous in history. Both would yield fascinating speculations. That's just my two cents.
Haddix is certainly not flying by the A Sound of Thunder rules of time travel here, by the way. People can apparently make fairly large changes to the past without worrying about how the ripple affect is going to damage the future. Apparently it isn't until you're plopping babies from the past into the twenty-first century that things start to get messed up. How nice that the universe is so flexible. It certainly should be a load off of time travelers' minds, that's for sure.
I've heard some people voice objections to the book in terms of the action sequences. Is it plausible that two kids would be able to make a last minute plan when they both bend down to tie a shoelace? Meh. And as for the fight scenes, maybe they aren't the greatest I've ever encountered but they didn't sufficiently distract me from the rest of the book to keep me from enjoying it. Haddix isn't going to win any major literary awards with this novel, but she'll probably garner more than a few kids choice medals and ribbons. And quite frankly, that's the kind of stuff you need to keep in your library. Haddix is a crowd pleaser at heart along the lines of fellow three-namers Mary Downing Hahn or Willo Davis Roberts. But for what it's worth, I think she improves as she goes. Found is undoubtedly the book of hers that I've enjoyed the most. Looking forward to the sequel.