Saturday, September 14, 2013

Book Review: The Book of Lost Things (Mister Max #1), by Cynthia Voigt

Title: Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things
Author: Cynthia Voigt
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Year: September 10th, 2013
Read: September 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Middle-Grade-Historical-Mysteryish
Rating: 4 Delicious Pastries

The Quick and Dirty:

In the early 1900s, 12-year-old Max Starling’s actor parents are invited to a maharajah’s palace to start a new theatrical company, but when he arrives at the docks to sail away with them to India they are nowhere to be found. On top of that, there is no record of the ship they were meant to depart on ever being in port at all. Not knowing whether his admittedly flighty parents left him behind or were kidnapped, Max needs to strive to be independent and make enough money to live on until he can get to the bottom of the mystery. He is not alone in his endeavor, though, with his grandmother and a cast of other characters to help him along as he discovers that his talent may not be detecting, per se, but rather helping others solve their problems. This was a really fun middle-grade novel with perceptive, thoughtful, and humorous writing, and great illustrations.

The Wordy Version:

Sometimes, as an adult, the problem I run into when reading middle grade books is that they often feel, in a way, “dumbed down” for younger audiences. This might make sense—younger audiences at a lower reading level need books at their level, and as an adult it’s natural that the reading level and stories may not provide much challenge, and simpler writing and storylines might not hold one’s interest. Many times after reading a middle-grade book I find myself thinking things like, “That was a fun book—I would have loved it when I was 11,” or “I enjoyed it, but I probably would’ve enjoyed it more when I was younger,” or the dreaded and dismissive, “It was cute.” (“Cute” is not always a dismissive and diminishing descriptor, but I find it often can be.) And yet—there are middle grade books that are beloved by adults and kids alike, with no caveats or qualifiers to temper the adults’ esteem for these books. Harry Potter is the most obvious of this category. Good ol’ Mister Potter begins the series at 10 years old, and the book’s target audience is children in the same neck of the woods, age-wise. Of course there’s kind of a built in audience because as Harry and his friends grow up, the kids who started reading the books in their tween years grow along with them, but I think it’s safe to say that this is a series that is completely enjoyable regardless of the reader’s age. Another middle-grade series that seems to be quite popular across many age demographics is the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. I’ve only read the first book and can’t speak to specifics, but from what I can tell it’s pretty popular with people of all ages as well (maybe not to the same extent as HP, but almost nothing compares with that juggernaut!).

There’s a fine line to walk between middle-grade enjoyable for mostly just the middle grades, and middle-grade that is genuinely enjoyable for everyone. This is something I ponder a lot (because I’m weird like that), and I haven’t yet been able to enumerate to my satisfaction what separates the two. Here are some of the qualities I’ve found that characterize the latter category:

  1. Good writing is good writing. No matter what audience an author is writing for, if the writing is good, people will respond to it. (Usually.) Less experienced readers can read and enjoy less skillful writing, but as you grow and read more and your tastes develop, you get a better sense of what good writing is. From that place, it is difficult to go back and enjoy things you may very well have loved if you read them when you were younger, and be able love them in the same way without any sort of qualifications. Really skillful writing, however, is enjoyable regardless of age.
  2. There is plot complexity without engendering confusion.
  3. Solid world building creates an implicit trust between author and reader.
  4. Writing isn’t shallow—it’s perceptive and insightful, and it can be those things without being overly deep and heavy.
  5. Kids can handle depth, though. When the writer handles it well, depth provides emotional resonance, and that’s a good thing.
  6. Readers can connect with characters besides the protagonist—characters are depicted as real people, not caricatures or tropes.
  7. Readers can empathize with the characters even though they may be in a situation the reader has never encountered. This usually comes part and parcel with the creation of realistic characters.

Pretty much all of those tie straight back into number one—good writing is good writing, and that applies to all books, not just middle-grade. Whew! All of this rambling and discussion just for me to finally get to the point and say I think Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things is on the “enjoyable for all ages” end of the spectrum.

I thought this was a well-written, entertaining book. I mean, duh, Cynthia Voigt, right? At the beginning of the book, though, I was a little skeptical. I was like, who are these flaky parents?! Poor Max, they don’t seem to care about him at all! But of course it’s not as simple as that. Through the course of the story, even though they are absent for most of it, the reader comes to see how much they really love Max. Moreover, while I was quick to judge his parents as flighty, the reader learns that Max, instead of feeling angry or bitter, admirably accepts them for who they are. Max is a precocious and wise 12-year-old, but at the same time he also manages to be realistic for that age.

Like Max’s parents, the other characters are more than their first impression would suggest—Baroness Barthold, Joachim the painting instructor, Ari the tutor—they are far from perfect people, but as more of each of their personalities is revealed, they become more compelling and sympathetic. (Refer to 5, 6, & 7 in the above list.)

The many mysteries Max is juggling throughout the story held my interest. The writing is perceptive, and Max in particular is a smart cookie. Topics of depth are explored without bogging the story down—my favorite of these is when Max takes a job to find a missing dog. When he finds her, he realizes that maybe her owners are not the best people to take care of her. He was paid to find the dog, but he doesn’t think it’s right to send a creature with no way to stand up for itself back to people who don’t care for her very well. What is right in that situation? The letter of the law vs. what’s right debate was handled an interesting way without straying into pedantic or heavy territory. I was hooked—I wanted to know what Max was going to do to solve the problem. (Refer to 2, 4, & 5 above.)

I also thoroughly enjoyed the style the book is written in. Max’s fascination with plays and acting, readily visible through the many characters he takes on to aid in his investigations and the way he thinks about his life as if it were a play, is also reflected through the set-up of the book. Chapters are titled in the “In Which Blahblahblah Happens” fashion, or alternatively, as if they were scenes in a play. For example, “The Lost Dog, Act 1” is the first chapter focusing on his search for the missing dog.

Overall, I liked this book a lot. The writing is intelligent and engaging, with enough going on to hold the interest of youngsters and grown-ups alike. Max is relatable—he wants to be an independent person and feels a sort of sense of adventure where that’s concerned, and I can remember feeling the same sorts of things at that age. The other characters are people you want to get to know better, and I always wanted to know how Max would end up solving the problems set before him. As an added bonus, the illustrations by Iacopo Bruno interspersed throughout the text are lovely and contributed to my enjoyment of the book. Bottom line: I liked spending time in this world with these people and would like to visit it again when the next book comes out.

What are some middle-grade books or series you have enjoyed, either when you were in the middle-grade demographic or later? Can you think of anything I should add to my running list of things that make a book targeted at younger readers appeal to people beyond that demographic?

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

1 comment:

Susan said...

What a thoughtful list of attributes!

As for favorite middle-grade (4th-7th grade reading?)... I have so many! The Westing Game, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Thief, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM, Vesper Holly series, Gone Away Lake, off the top of my head. The fact that half of these won the Newbery, another two were Newbery Honors and the series is by a Newbery winner seems to mean that the Newbery award committee does an excellent job finding books that can be enjoyed by whole families.

I'm going to try to read this one soon, but my Booker haul is overwhelming right now.

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