I have not read Choldenko's hugely popular Al Capone books. I had not even realized they were that popular until I casually mentioned she had a new one coming out and a hitherto silent and hostile group of 5th graders broke out into spontaneous cheers. However, I understand this book is a radical departure from her previous titles and style. I hope so, because it's not only one I wouldn't recommend, it's one I will anti-recommend.
You all like a really strong negative review, right? Settle in, I am going to be negative. Not critical, NEGATIVE.
India, Finn, and Mouse know there's something wrong with Mom. India doesn't want to admit anything's wrong and she's wrapped up in hating her family and being a teenager with her best friend Maddy. Finn is desperately worried, but he's pretty much always worried, always trying to be the peacemaker, always trying to measure up to some invisible point. Mouse is a typical eccentric genius child and is satisfied with her invisible friend and her obsession with facts and astronomy.
Then Mom tells them their house is gone and they are moving to Colorado. Without her. Tomorrow. They find themselves on a plane and when they get off...they are somewhere else. A strange place where everyone knows their names, their deepest desires, and what matters most to them. Or do they? Finn knows right away that he wants to get back to his own family and place and Mouse quickly agrees. But India thinks she may have finally found a place that really appreciates her, where she can be herself. But who is she really?
As is fairly obvious (at least to me) the kids have been in a plane crash and are in a sort of...heaven? Eventually, they make it back and are the only survivors through a series of miracles. Now, Choldenko is a good writer. I kept reading even though I found the story annoying, nonsensical, and increasingly disturbing. If you want to read a stream-of-consciousness fable about life and life after death, go ahead. This is for you.
If, however, like most middle grade readers you want a story with interesting events and people you will be disappointed. Despite Choldenko's writing ability, the three children never rose above their stereotyped characters. The platitudes, albeit written in a unique and interesting way, are still platitudes. Most of all the final message in the book is FREAKING DISTURBING. Do not give this book to anyone who has ever lost a family member or close friend, especially if it was a child. In the final epilogue, a folksy local woman (named Mrs. Bean of course) talks to an invisible audience about how she found the children with the help of her dog. She also says that when the kids' mom came "She said she just knows in her gut they's alive. Moms know that kind of thing." (I'm sure every mother who's ever had a lost or missing child would love this miraculous ability to know whether or not they're alive). Then she says "Somethin' on the inside makes one person want to save himself where the next one just gives on up."
This is the whole gist of the kids' adventures in the strange beyond-death world. They escape because they want it so badly. So...the other kids on the plane really just wanted to die, or didn't care about their family enough to come back. Your dead child did not love you enough to come back, is basically what this is saying. This is beyond disturbing.
In addition to that, the nowhere place the kids go to is pretty obviously meant to be heaven. It's not purgatory, it's not an in-between place, it's the final destination. It's boring, depressing, frightening, and weird. Have your kid read that and expect nightmares about death for the next, oh, three months or so at least. Whatever your beliefs about life (or not) after death, I have trouble seeing this as a way to reassure children about what comes after death, no matter what you believe.
Verdict: All I can think of as an excuse for this book is that Choldenko became so caught up in the beauty of her own writing she forgot about plot, character, or what the book was actually saying. Of course, quite a few people have read and liked this and obviously didn't see the very disturbing messages I did. Some reviews call it Kafkaesque. That's ok, different tastes and all, maybe you have nine year olds who really like Kafka. I'm still not buying it or recommending it. Ever.
ISBN: 9780803735347; Published February 2011 by Dial Books; ARC provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter 2011