Thursday, June 23, 2011

Book Review: The Boy at the End of the World, by Greg Van Eekhout (Bloomsbury Children's Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Yes, it's another boy book - I have two of them, naturally my reading will be influenced by them. But I've got more girl books on the horizon, even princessy stuff. Honest.

I was hoping to like this one more. It took me longer to like it than I expected, especially since I'd been excited about reading this book for a while. I can't yet put my finger on what it was that didn't tune me in right away, because it's an interesting enough book.

Fisher, a preteen boy from what we are led to guess, wakes up in a pod in a shelter. There is destruction all around him, and he sees other beings like him lying dead in similar pods. The only other living being is a robot, from whom he runs. The robot catches up with him and tells the boy that his name is Fisher and he's the only survivor of the human race.

It's the usual post-apocalyptic story. Humans went and ruined the earth and nature's taken her planet back. This time, humans genetically engineered humans and animals and put them in gel-filled pods, with robots to oversee their care, until such tiime came that they could all be reawakened and recreate society. The humans were programmed with specific survival skills that would help them create a community. Fisher, he learns, has been programmed to be a fisherman. Click, the name he gives his robot companion, tells Fisher that he has been tasked with helping Fisher "continue existing".

Fisher heads off to find another Ark - the name of the facilities where the humans and animals were kept in hibernation - with Click and a pygmy mammoth they meet on their travels (and who Fisher names Protein, because his first thought was to eat the mammoth). They also meet up with a group of genetically engineered, intelligent prairie dogs who hate humans because of what they did to the planet and to the prairie dogs.

It's a survivalist tale, and that is where the interest lies. Fisher, created with one set of skills, learns and adapts as the book progresses. He is born little more than a blank slate and we see not only an intelligence develop, but an emotional intellect. The characters they meet aren't cute and cuddly (even Protein is a fan of dropping dung right and left throughout the book), and sometimes, they're downright chilling.

I think where the book stumbles lies in its background story. It is difficult to write a postapocalyptic tale without sounding like hundreds of other books on the market, and the "humans and technology bad, nature good" call to action beats the reader over the head throughout the book. Humans bring the planet to the brink of environmental collapse, so they leave the rest of the planet to deal with it while they go into hiding until the coast is clear. The technology that humans created to save them ultimately turns on them and brings the race to the point of near-extinction, further painting us as hapless ne'er do wells.

Maybe a younger, less jaded audience won't read it through the same eyes as I will - but then again, this is a generation that has been fed this storyline since they were babies. Think Happy Feet, a movie that deceptively sold us a cute story about a penguin who didn't fit in, and gave us a Greenpeace horror movie halfway through the picture. Think of Wall-E, where we were drowning our society in junk, so we had to go into space to get away from it.

I don't want it to sound like I didn't like this book, because I did. I think older middle grade readers, around the 9- and 10-year old mark, will grab onto Fisher as a hero they can identify with as a young boy who needs to learn to survive, and who has a robot companion. And a mammoth. Fisher's society is a society that kids today can understand and relate to, with a marriage of technology and environmental awareness.

Greg Van Eekhout knows how to write for kids - he has a Masters in Education and spent ten years developing online curricula for K-12 and college students. He is kid- and teacher-accessible, offering teachers tips on having author events at schools (and libraries), and providing his e-mail address to be contacted about school visits. He offers two presentations that he follows in his appearances. His website is geared toward grownups who are interested in reading his reviews, about his books, and where he'll be next.

Full disclosure: This is a Bloomsbury book; I got it from work and I am not promoting the book for work. This is solely my opinion.

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