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, September 14, 2011

Choldenko, Gennifer. No Passengers Beyond this Point. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2011. 241 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-8037-3534-7. This book is for grades 5 and up, or ages 10 and up, depending on reading level (2 stars out of 4).

It is sometimes hard to remember that I am an adult, and not a young one at that. When I read a story, novel, or narrative that I have “read before” my first thought is to condemn it as derivative. However, let’s face it: my students (and most others, I imagine) are not as well-read as I am. I am not trying to blow my own horn, but I have watched many teachers berate students for not knowing something that only adults normally know; as educators, we need to understand that we have taken classes in this stuff and that we have years of experience and a meta-understanding of YA lit that no 12-year-old can possess. Having said that, authors do not always deserve a break for reinventing an existing story. Yes, Wendy Mass’s 11 Birthdays is Groundhog Day in YA novel form, but it is utterly charming. However, Gennifer Choldenko’s new work No Passengers Beyond this Point, an obvious homage to the 1960s British groundbreaking teledrama The Prisoner, is neither charming nor effective.

India, Finn, and Mouse Tompkins, fourteen, twelve, and six respectively, have lost their home. Mom tried her best, after Dad’s death six years ago, to keep it together, but a perfect storm of financial trouble finally led to foreclosure and repossession. The children, one moody, self-absorbed teenager, one quiet, dutiful tweener, and one precocious child genius with an invisible friend, Bing, will have to move to Colorado to stay with their Uncle Red while Mom cleans up some business and finishes out her school year as a teacher. While on the flight to Fort Baker, Colorado, the plane encounters some turbulence and lands instead in Falling Bird, a mysterious place in which the normal rules of life do not seem to apply. They know something is wrong when India notices that the flight did not last long enough and they look out the window at a surreal sky: “She nods hesitantly, then raises the window shade to peer at the sky. It’s night now, except for this one patch of blue—a puzzle piece from the wrong puzzle” (49). During their arrival, they are celebrated and cheered, given huge houses and tons of clothes, all in their own styles. However, all is not as it seems, and it appears that the children must choose between this world and the real one. Staying is easy; it is extremely difficult, a “1-in-10,000 chance” according to one Falling Bird resident, to get back to the reality with their mother, uncle, and friends. To complicate matters, not all three children are sure they want to return from where they came; they must all make difficult decisions if they want to stay together and build a future they can believe in.

I was almost sure I would like this novel because I am so fond of the author’s other works, specifically Al Capone Does My Shirts and If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period. Although I did like certain aspects of No Passengers Beyond this Point, like the drawings at the beginning of each chapter and the different characters Ms. Choldenko uses to skillfully narrate each chapter in authentic voices. Also, the author starts the novel with an all-too-true representation of the housing crunch that affects so many Americans; this is a timely and poignant message. However, although I normally like a little puzzle to solve in a novel, there is too much mystery surrounding Falling Bird. Is it real or a dream? Are they really there or still on the plane? The combined narratives give a consistently incomplete description of everything that would give the reader a firm footing in a strange world. Ms. Choldenko, due to a surprising and disappointing lack of description, explanation, and raison d’etre for Falling Bird, fails in her attempt to compel the reader to emotionally join the three main characters on their journey through varying stages of adolescence and pre-adolescence. I believe that with more explanation and description, this could have been an effective novel; as it stands, it is merely an enigma.

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