September 06, 2018


Max Tilt #2: 80 Days or Die. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $17.99.

You Go First. By Erin Entrada Kelly. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Margot and Mateo Save the World. By Darcy Miller. Harper. $16.99.

     An important part of the formula for preteen and young-teen novels, in addition to the intelligence and all-around worthiness of the young protagonists, is the ineptness and often downright stupidity of all the grown-ups – parents and otherwise. The foundational idea of these genre novels is that only preteens are smart enough, clever enough, aware enough, adept enough and committed enough to do whatever needs to be done. The central characters exist in a world where, apparently, people grow to a certain age and then systematically lose the ability to think, calculate, figure out, and act – and certainly the ability to be heroic. Take the second book in Peter Lerangis’ Max Tilt series, which is built on one of those intriguing and vaguely silly historical premises that Lerangis favors – and handles with aplomb. The idea here is that Max’s mom is seriously ill and at the Mayo Clinic, taken there by Max’s dad, so Max (age 13) is in the care of Alexandra (Alex), his college-age cousin, who is conveniently taking time off from school to write a novel. And the two young people discover a chest once owned by Jules Verne, who happens to be the protagonists’ mutual ancestor. The chest is in Max’s parents’ attic, but of course they have no idea what it is or what it contains. Only the young people manage to figure out that it includes clues to a lost Verne manuscript that shows that his stories really happened. And, conveniently, anyone following Verne’s clues will discover a treasure that may solve Max’s parents’ serious financial problems. Oh, and there will also be information showing how Verne recovered from a serious gunshot wound – information that will be usable to cure Max’s mother. Somehow, every adult for multiple generations has missed all of this. And the ridiculousness of adults shows up in other ways as 80 Days or Die moves along. Max and Alex were forced in the first Max Tilt book into an uneasy alliance with the usual nefarious-businessman type. In the second novel, they suddenly discover that the car being used by a woman named Bitsy, who has been helping them, has a Niemand Enterprises logo on the trunk, since obviously adults doing evil things advertise them clearly through automotive decoration. This leads Max to comment, “She’s working for – him. He who must not be named! Even though I just did.” The reference to Voldemort having been inserted with suitable subtlety (or lack thereof), Lerangis soon unravels the tangle when Bitsy explains that the logo was “one of the perks of working for old Stinky,” to whom Bitsy’s mum was married, even though Bitsy is not the daughter of “old Stinky,” since “Mummy had been married before,” so everything is all right after all. Except, of course, it is not, since the quest for Verne’s magical healing elements requires considerably more time and effort. Lerangis is expert at pacing adventure stories, however absurd their underlying elements, and fans of the first Max Tilt book will not be disappointed in this second one. They will also be reminded, at least in passing, that Lerangis here indulges in the now-politically-correct formula of having his protagonists be of mixed race: Max has a white mother and Dominican father, while Alex has an African-American mother and white father. These attributes are entirely irrelevant to the tale. Of greater importance is the fact that Max has and is largely defined by autism spectrum disorder, which means, first, that he tends to take everything literally (leading to a series of misunderstandings, some of them humorous); and, second, that he has a certain degree of synesthesia, which means that to him, emotions have odors. Notably, fear = fish. So when Max tells Bitsy, during the misunderstanding about the car, “You make me smell fish,” that refers not to the tuna sandwich that Bitsy had for lunch but to Max experiencing fear regarding “old Stinky” and Niemand Enterprises. Anyway, 80 Days or Die offers Lerangis’ usual skilled plotting and pacing and the usual requirement in his books of being even more willing than usual to suspend one’s understandable disbelief in, among other things, the tremendous capabilities of the young protagonists and the total incompetence of the adults around them.

     A much quieter and more thoughtful book, in which the inability of adults to understand preteens’ thoughts and concerns is a constant undercurrent as a kind of sad backdrop, Erin Estrada Kelly’s You Go First is essentially about loneliness – a recurring theme in her books for this age group. The protagonists are two TAG (talented and gifted) kids from different geographical areas: 12-year-old Charlotte Lockard from Pennsylvania and 11-year-old Ben Boxer from Louisiana. They have an online connection – they play Scrabble against each other – and this becomes a lifeline of sorts as the two spend a hyper-difficult week trying to work through family issues with which, of course, their parents (the source of much of the angst here) are unable to help. Charlotte’s dad has a heart attack, sending the family into an understandable tailspin; and during the same week, Ben’s parents tell him they are getting divorced. While trying to negotiate these turbulent waters, both kids have to deal with the standard trials of middle school, including bullying and socialization issues: notably, Charlotte’s lifelong best friend is now running with a cooler clique and describing Charlotte as a “parasite,” and introverted and brainy Ben decides to step out of character and run for student council (being unable to comprehend the ridicule he faces as a result). Kelly structures the book in alternating chapters that reflect each central character’s thoughts and feelings. However, Charlotte and Ben are defined more by external description than by any highly distinctive voice. Charlotte, for example, collects rocks and constantly does anagrams, while Ben has a Ravenclaw blanket and extensive “factoid” knowledge about U.S. presidents. Parental absence/helplessness pervades the book: “Her mom didn’t need to hear her problems, and Charlotte wouldn’t know where to start anyway,” appears in one chapter and is a pretty good summation. Another is, “Ben simultaneously wanted to hug his mother and tape her mouth shut.” The book is ultimately about friendship and about middle-schoolers needing to be responsible for their own choices and their own actions – in the absence of any significant guidance from their parents. You Go First is one of those novels that practically scream “sensitive” through their very quietness. Kelly is as skilled in her approach as Lerangis is in his, but their styles are very different – except for the essential uselessness of the adults in their protagonists’ world.

     However, neither Lerangis nor Kelly treats grown-ups with as much offhand contempt as does Darcy Miller in Margot and Mateo Save the World. Of course, this book’s title points to a novel that is intended to be an amusing adventure rather than a deeply serious one, so some overstating of the case – any case – is sure to be in order. The extent of it, where adults are concerned, is nevertheless surprising. The middle-school protagonists here, Margot Blumenthal and Mateo Flores, have been cast as Juliet and Romeo in a middle-school version of Shakespeare’s play; this is what gives them an initial reason to know and interact with each other. Then Margot discovers a weird, slimy something-or-other attached to Mateo’s back, yanks it off, and thereby learns that there has been an alien invasion of Earth. So the kids go to their parents and the authorities and – just kidding! Of course they don’t! They do try to find Mateo’s father, a city worker for the town of West Cove, but he has gone missing, and the town’s mayor, for whom he works, has gone berserk after being taken over by one of the alien thingies. None of this really speaks to the uselessness of adults in the book, though. What does speak to it is one Dr. Smalls, who is 487 days pre-retirement and lamentably forced to eat a bran muffin when his research assistant, Calvin Biggs, cannot get him any other type. Smalls is so far beyond incompetent that a new word would have to be invented for him if he played a significant role in the book. But he does not. Calvin, however, does. Margot and Mateo Save the World does require the occasional adult, for example to drive a car (Calvin proves completely incompetent with a stick shift) and to put some alien bits under a microscope (Calvin decides they are unlike anything he has ever seen, but is too incompetent to explain that to the even-more-incompetent Dr. Smalls). Calvin also gets repeatedly punched by alien-controlled characters, and just to make the point about his uselessness abundantly clear, when Margot and Mateo successfully tie up the possessed town mayor, Calvin waits until they are out of the room, unties her for no particular reason, then gets beaten up and also loses all samples that would prove there are aliens about. A real winner, that Calvin. Later in the book, other adults appear, such as incompetent Army types who have been aware of the aliens for longer than Margot and Mateo have been alive but have been unable to find them, much less destroy them – two things the preteens accomplish messily but very quickly. And to be sure word of the aliens does not get out, the Army gets the kids to sign confidentiality agreements (not legally binding, by the way, since Margot and Mateo are both under 18). The litany of dumbness among adults eventually seems to infect Margot and Mateo, too, because when they discover a cache of evil-alien eggs after the aliens have supposedly been destroyed, they do not tell anyone, take any pictures, livestream the event, or otherwise reveal anything whatsoever about what is and has been going on. Actually, the best thing about Margot and Mateo Save the World could be that it hints at something that readers of preteen novels may wonder about from time to time: just how do the super-capable preteen protagonists eventually morph into those useless adults? This book seems to catch them just as the transition to fecklessness is beginning.

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