Center for Children's Books
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by Benedict Carey
“People knew nothing, zero, about what was going on literally right
beneath their feet. The plotting at the nuclear plant. The twisted
plans for the island. The heinous black heart of Folsom: We were
oblivious back then, like moths circling a fire.” Such is the state of
the residents of Folsom Adjacent, an island trailer-park community that
exists solely, amid stultifying dullness and baking heat, to support
the big nuclear plant there, and that makes Lucky’s Hard Pan (The Higher Power of Lucky, BCCB
1/07) seem like luxury.
Of course, the Adjacent residents who happen on the secret are a pair
of kids. Di, who is nicknamed—initially derisively, now
and her scrawny little pal known as “Tom Jones” (nobody can bother to
pronounce or find out his real, long, Arabic name), are tense enough at
the prospect of starting middle school off the island, and things get
worse when Adjacent residents start disappearing. The latest victim is
Di and Tom’s dear and clever friend Mrs. Clarke, who has always helped
them with their math; while the authorities shrug the events off, the
two kids realize that Mrs. Clarke has left them a mathematical clue.
Solving that one leads to another, solving that one leads to another,
and so on; as the kids solve the problems, they begin to learn more
about the secret world of and under Adjacent, and they find allies in
some of their scarier co-residents—but will it be enough to save Mrs.
Clarke and defeat the nefarious plans of Folsom Electric?
Carey takes the puzzle-book format, familiar in works from Raskin’s The Westing Game (BCCB 9/78) to
Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer
(BCCB 7/04), and gives it a rawboned and rich human story with a vivid
sense of place. The math-centered clues are accessible but not obvious,
involving gradients, right triangles, graph coordinates, and the like;
even more cleverly, their solutions visually accrue into a map of the
realm underneath Adjacent, so that mathematics is literally explaining
the protagonists’ world. Yet readers not absorbed by the math can sit
back, let Di, Tom, and their cohorts do the numeric labors, and simply
enjoy the adventure. The intricacies of the kids’ travel through the
mysterious world underneath Adjacent (entered through a huge trash
heap) are suspenseful and fascinating, while there’s a touch of
Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict
Society (BCCB 5/07) in notion of the clever youngsters using
their talents to infiltrate and defeat a powerful collective enemy. The
writing crackles with plainspoken wit, and nifty little details sparkle
in odd places (many of the names are joking plays on the famous, with
the Epic Poets, led by Owen Wilfred, a frightening gang at school, and
Rene D. Quartez and Pascal
Blasé the bullies-in-chief in Adjacent). Though the style is far from
sentimental, there are touches of understated poignancy in the fates of
some less-fortunate Adjacent residents (a depressing category indeed),
and Di and Tom are sketched in bold, quick strokes that make them
effectively individual and sympathetic. The narrative voice is never
identified, but it sounds like the ramblings of another resident of
Adjacent, who’s accustomed to the place’s deficits and peculiarities
and reflects its blinkered view, and who tells a whale of a good story.
“Once people start thinking, as Mrs. Clarke would have said, all bets
are off.” That’s certainly true in the case of Tom, Di, and the other
who begin to find they have capabilities and connections beyond their
expectations as well as the ability to solve a mystery that will save
their homes. Will that message inspire readers as well? Maybe, but even
if it doesn’t, they’ll find plenty of diversion in this atmospheric
tale of determined kids using their brains and talents to find their
way through a strange and daunting world—above ground as well as below
Deborah Stevenson, Editor
Cover image by Joshua Middleton from The Unknowns ©2009.
Used by permission of Abrams Books for Young Readers.
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This page was last updated on June 1, 2009.