June 06, 2024


The Person Controller. By David Baddiel. Illustrated by Jim Field. HarperCollins. $9.99.

Into the Sideways World. By Ross Welford. HarperCollins. $9.99.

     Adventure books for preteen readers, ages 9-12, almost always follow a predictable pattern, but as with Robert Frost’s two roads diverging in a wood, what makes all the difference is how they follow it. Experienced and facile British authors David Baddiel and Ross Welford both get the tropes of this genre right: protagonists (one male and one female) in the target age range, dysfunctional families of one sort or another, typical school worries and fellow students (bullies always included), and so forth. But while Baddiel plays the form and plays with it, producing a lighthearted and lightheaded romp, Welford takes things very much more seriously in a determined search for a meaningful and uplifting message.

     The Person Controller is about something that looks like a video game controller but is actually paired to a bracelet and allows the controller user to control the actions of the bracelet wearer. What is more, those activities are as outlandish as the ones in video games, which means they are often outright impossible: the controller user simply thinks of a specific game and the bracelet wearer can then be made to do the things that characters do in that specific game (and can even be transformed in appearance to fit into the world of that game). The 11-year-old protagonists, twins Fred and Ellie Stone, share a grossly overweight father and a TV-obsessed mother who are even more oblivious to their activities than parents usually are in books like this. Fred and Ellie are video game fanatics, with Ellie a better player but Fred being better at making the avatars look really cool. These complementary talents turn out to be useful, each in its own way, when Fred and Ellie come into possession of a decidedly unusual controller thanks to the self-proclaimed Mystery Man who appears on their school’s not-very-good laptop. Many adventures and misadventures follow, often involving Morris and Isla Fawcett, the school bullies and the children of the headmaster. They too have differing but complementary talents, if you can call them that: Isla is the brains of the duo and Morris is the brawn (and notably lacking in brains). The most interesting characters in the book are not Fred and Ellie or Morris and Isla – all of them are thoroughly formulaic – but the Mystery Man and the controller. Except that Baddiel does not even try to explain either of them. Who exactly is the Mystery Man, what is he trying to accomplish, where does he come from, why is he visible only on the school’s laptop and not elsewhere, what is his motivation, where does his magic originate? The questions are endless, but the answers are an endless string of zeroes, since Baddiel never answers a single one. As for the controller, how (within the realm of fantasy) does it take over people’s bodies and get them to do things that people’s bodies are not meant to do and in fact could not possibly do without, you know, ripping apart and shattering into their component elements? Is there a purpose of some sort to the controller, and if so, what is it? And why exactly does it start running out of non-renewable power at the most inconvenient possible time? Again, there are no answers here – but in a book lacking even a modicum of seriousness, this is not as big a deal as it might otherwise be. Suffice it to say that after things go very badly for Fred and Ellie, they eventually go very well, and even Morris and Isla learn a lesson (to some extent), and the various subsidiary characters all go their suitably subsidiary ways – except for the Mystery Man, who for some reason is left decidedly (but amusingly) unhappy at the book’s conclusion. The Person Controller never tries to be more than lighthearted fun, with the result that it never is more than lighthearted fun, but that is just fine for preteens who would like to spend some reading time having, you guessed it, lighthearted fun.

     Into the Sideways World, although cut from the same formulaic cloth, is a different matter altogether. Here the protagonists are 12 years old. They are the narrator, Wilhelmina (Willa) Shafto, and a school friend named Emanuel (Manny) Weaver. They live in a dour, violence-haunted world – presumably ours in the near future – in which World War III may erupt at any moment (or may have already started through skirmishes everywhere), and pollution and climate change and people treating other people horribly are just about all that ever happens. Manny, a foster child who has been bumped from family to family, and Willa, whose parents are constantly bickering and whose older sister is boy-obsessed but otherwise pretty much a nonentity, instantly strike up a friendship when Manny starts attending Willa’s school. Together they decide to explore a local mystery involving an animal being called a “cog” (a sort of cat-dog) that may or may not be real. Manny proves to be a “sensitive,” attuned to elements of the world that others cannot feel – although Maudie Lawson, the elderly former hippie who helps out around the Shaftos’ decrepit “leisure park,” has some sort of mystical connection to otherness as well. Anyway, in pursuit of the cog, Willa and Manny enter a suitably mysterious cave under a suitably full moon at suitably high tide, and soon emerge in a different part of the multiverse: a world just like ours (although time is out of joint between the two Earths), but one in which everything is perfect. It is a world where WWW stands for World Without War, not World Wide Web; and even though there are no computers, cellphones or many other appurtenances of everyday “our world” life, there is perfect peace and harmony, with flying cars and no fossil fuels and no military or armed police forces and plenty of everything for everyone. There are also small differences in addition to the huge ones, notably that in the usual world, Willa has misaligned teeth and never knew her brother, who died shortly after birth; while in the sideways world, Mina (as her otherworldly self is called) has perfect teeth and an older brother whose name, Alex, is the same as the name of Willa’s sister in the usual world. After Manny and Willa, helped by the cog for no apparent or ever-explained reason, find their way into and then out of the sideways world, they decide to go back there to get proof that the sideways world exists because that means their world can also become peaceful and abundant and have no problems with energy or sustenance or anything else (even the ocean in the sideways world is a bluer blue because it is so much healthier). Welford throws various complications into the story and brings in a variety of minor characters, but never loses sight of where he wants the plot to go. The whole difference between the worlds turns out to involve President John F. Kennedy, a quote from whom opens the book. This is a rather odd linchpin for a British novel, but it does provide some connective tissue between the worlds. Manny actually wants to stay in the sideways world, but when he realizes why that cannot be, his reuniting with Willa and the way they return to their original world makes for the most intense and action-packed portion of the book. That sequence also contains the only smidgen of negativity involving the sideways world, in the form of a comment by brother Alex: “No one ever breaks the rules here. Everything is ordered, everything works, and it’s wonderful. Perfect, even. But, you know, sometimes perfect is a bit, well…” And Willa chimes in, “Boring?” And Alex “laughs as if he’s happier to let me say it than actually utter the word itself.” Anyway, after a hair-raising escapade that gets Willa and Manny back to their original world, a bunch of new deus ex machina elements tie up the plot as it turns out that the government knows all about interdimensional “grey holes” but is benevolently covering things up; and anyway, now that Willa and Manny have gone through one and returned with actual proof that the sideways world exists, it is possible to use that information to start turning the real world into a perfect one analogous to the sideways one because…well, just because. Some lip service is paid at the book’s end to the notion that it will be difficult to make the transition to a World Without War, but Welford is determined to emphasize the possibility so strongly as to make it seem a likelihood. For all the care with which it is created, Into the Sideways World is a (+++) book, being so incredibly earnest all the time that it will scarcely please preteen readers hoping for any dose of levity or even a modest sense of reality, understanding of human nature, or willingness to contemplate something somewhere between awfulness and perfection. Read purely as escapist fantasy, the book could be enjoyable. But Welford’s unceasing determination to make it more than escapism turns it into somewhat heavy-handed sermonizing – an adult’s wish fulfillment that seems to be born of despair, not tied to a genuine sense of wonder and possibility.

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