September 13, 2012


Racing the Moon. By Alan Armstrong. Illustrated by Tim Jessell. Random House. $16.99.

Laugh with the Moon. By Shana Burg. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

The Ghost of Graylock. By Dan Poblocki. Scholastic. $16.99.

      These books for preteens and young teenagers take adventure in a variety of directions.  Alan Armstrong’s Racing the Moon takes it into history, and then pretty much all over the place.  Set in 1947 and ostensibly the story of 11-year-old Alexis (Alex) Hart, the book focuses more on her older brother, Chuck, and on the budding U.S. space program right after World War II.  The tides of history run deeper than the late 1940s: the young protagonists befriend an Army scientist named Captain Ebbs who tells them that she is descended from Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame.  The three – Alex, Chuck and Captain Ebbs – meet Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist who created the deadly V2 rocket for Hitler’s regime, then defected and became instrumental in the early United States space race.  So there are multiple threads here: postwar space-program issues (Captain Ebbs, an interesting character who is not very well treated by Chuck, is working to develop food for future astronauts), the history of Captain John Smith, the background of Wernher von Braun (touched upon rather lightly), and through it all, the adventures of Alex and Chuck.  This is a lot to pack into a book, and it does not all fit together seamlessly.  The book’s climax is a top-secret rocket launch, under von Braun’s auspices, which Chuck and Alex get to witness after rather preposterously breaking into a military installation.  Everything ends well, especially for Chuck, with the far-fetched nature of the whole book perhaps being more palatable to young readers because the events in it happened such a long, long time ago, by their standards.

      The moon is quite different – well, it’s the same moon, but in a very different context – in Shana Burg’s Laugh with the Moon.  Here the adventure takes readers to Africa.  This is a coming-of-age tale about 13-year-old Clare Silver, whose mother has recently died and whose father has spirited her away to Malawi for six months – not so she can heal but so he can do healing: he is a doctor who has worked in Malawi before.  Clare is determined to give her father the silent treatment for the entire six months, and is dismayed by pretty much everything, from learning a new language at Mzanga Full Primary School to being surrounded by insects and roosters.  What is going to happen here is obvious: Clare will find out that others have lost even more than she has; she will come to appreciate the culture of a land very different from hers; she will be reconciled with her father; she will have startling, sometimes slightly amusing encounters with African wildlife; and she will have done more than six months of growing up by the end of the trip.  Burg hits all those plot points, and because she has actually been to Malawi, she hits them in a context that she portrays well and with obvious sympathy and concern.  Clare is an attractive character if not a very individuated one: she is loving and in pain, intelligent but stubborn, artistic and proud.  She learns just how much she has to offer others, and how much more there is to life than what she has gone through already.  These are very common lessons in books for this age level, but if there is little significant freshness to the plot here, there is a good deal that is unusual in the locale – making the book more interesting than many others that proceed along similar lines.

      The setting is an ordinary American town called Hedston in The Ghost of Graylock, but what is intended to be exotic in Dan Poblocki’s ghost story is the setting within that setting.  Brother and sister Neil and Bree Cady, staying with their aunts for the summer, soon learn about the shuttered psychiatric hospital called Graylock (a typically ominous fictional name that real-world hospital administrators would avoid like the plague).  Intended as a place of healing, Graylock somehow “went bad,” according to townspeople, and several young patients died under mysterious circumstances.  Now the place is closed and abandoned, and said to be haunted by the ghost of a murderous nurse.  So of course it simply must be explored – by Neil, Bree and their new friends, Wesley and Eric.  All the usual trappings of a ghost story are here: ominous dreams, unexpected camera images, mistaken identity, scary appearance of bits of the lake weed in which the drowned children were found long ago, discovery of unexpected relationships, and so forth.  Many of the scenes are 100% typical for this sort of book: “There was a flash of light, a crash of thunder, and the room went suddenly dark.  They both screamed, then moved so quickly toward each other on the couch that they nearly bumped heads.”  Slick steps, damp stone walls, a scary basement – all the typical elements of ghostly tales are here in profusion.  And of course there really is a ghost, although not the one the townspeople have led Neil and Bree to expect.  But there is also a very-much-alive bad guy, and it is only after the siblings have dealt with both that they can at last relax and Neil can finally sleep peacefully.  The Ghost of Graylock is not particularly original, but Poblocki paces it well, with enough shivery anticipation to keep young ghost-story lovers involved and worried about what will happen next.  And he does pull together all the elements of the narrative at the end for a satisfying conclusion.  This is not a very distinctive book, but it is a solid genre entry that will satisfy readers looking for a modest portion of thrills and chills.

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