Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Landon, Kristen. The Limit. Aladdin, 2010. 291 pages. ISBN 13: 978-1-4424-0271-3. This book is for grades 6 and up, or ages 12 and up, depending on reading level (3 stars out of 4).

Dystopia is the new vampire, which in turn was the new wizard, which in turn was the new Lemony Snicket. Now that The Hunger Games series has reminded the YA reading audience how much fun and how powerful dystopias can be, many authors (and publishers, who tend to like whatever is popular and whatever people will buy) have clamored to get in on the act. Some very good books, like James Dashner’s Maze Runner series, have continued the dystopia tradition well. The latest entry is The Limit by Kristen Landon, and although I do not think it will be a series, it is a story for our times that presents a frighteningly realistic look at our future, in which we become so powerless over debt that we allow our children to pay our way.

Thirteen-year-old Matt Dunston is great at math, but his skill cannot save his family from Federal Debt Ordinance 169-D. In Matt’s world, probably only a few years removed from our own, everyone has a “limit,” a financial ceiling that no one may exceed. If a family does spend over its limit, the government has the right to force reduced spending by limiting credit, or to take one or more of the family’s children to a workhouse so the child or children can work to pay off the family’s debt faster. After an embarrassing scene at the supermarket in which the clerk had to deny a purchase because the Dunston family limit had been reached, Mrs. Dunston and her children return home to find a shiny black limousine sitting in front of the house. Sensing what is going to happen, Mrs. Dunston fearfully turns to Matt, her oldest son and therefore the vulnerable one: “She gave my thigh a tense squeeze. ‘Whatever happens, remember I love you. We’re going to fix it’” (34). Instead of fixing it, Matt is whisked away to a workhouse and tested. Fortunately for Matt, he is a very talented young man and therefore qualifies for the “Top Floor,” in which kids live in apparent luxury with seemingly limitless spending accounts. However, after Matt overhears a possibly dangerous conversation between the authorities and one of the other Top Floor children begins getting crippling headaches, Matt starts to wonder about the true nature of the workhouse: “Headaches. Crab Woman’s [the main lobby guard] voice from the night before grated like gravel in my mind: It was easier when they just got headaches. You going to have to dump this one too?’” (72). When Matt starts using his impressive math and problem solving skills to investigate and hack into some systems, he finds much more than he bargained for, and danger may be closer than he thinks.

Like Haddix’s Shadow Children series, The Limit by Kristen Landon highlights a new twist in the dystopia genre, in Landon’s case, a financial element that makes children fiscally responsible for their parents’ sins. Completely unsurprising in an age in which YA novels often feature functional children of dysfunctional parents, this new preoccupation is perfectly appropriate for the times. After all, don’t our children always pay for our actions, whether it is by cleaning up the environment, fighting our wars, or assuming our debts? Also, the Dunstons are a perfect example of the post-digital family: Mom consumes but is clueless about her consumption; children are glued to electronics, and Dad seems to recklessly live larger than his means, buying and spending thoughtlessly. Although underdeveloped in the novel, the family symbolizes America’s stubborn denial that we as a country have lived too large for too long. Its helplessness is our helplessness over a financial system that has been stretched too thinly for too long. The Limit by Kristen Landon is a fine suspense novel, but its success relies less on quality writing and plot development and more on a disturbing idea that we understand but do not internalize: eventually, our children will pay for our bloated lifestyles, and that payment may come sooner, and be harsher, than we think.

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