Mark Haddon gets the best book designers ever, doesn't he? The cover of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was plain red with that little silhouette of a dog upside-down, and that told you that the book was possibly old-fashioned but definitely unexpected on the inside. The cover of boom! is the friendliest orange linen, with big lower-case letters spelling out the title and the author's name, and a cute lil' rocket done in nice thick lines. You just want to pick it up and put it in your pocket. Of course, I said the same thing about Mac Barnett after meeting him at BEA, so maybe I'm just a sucker for a linen jacket. (Parenthetically, does Adam Rex every go anywhere without his bag strapped across his chest? What's he got in there?)
If I seem obsessed with covers lately, I think it's because I have SO many books in my stack, all of which I expect to be good if not great, that I am selecting the ones that jump out at me first.
Boom! is a version of your old-style Something Is Very Strange About the Teachers at My School story. You know that story. They're aliens, or monsters, or she collects the teeth of children for nefarious purposes. Love that storyline. Who hasn't thought it at one time or another? Even in college, I was pretty sure a respected art history professor of mine had probably wrested herself into life from the mud at the bottom of an archaeological dig in Sicily.
In boom!, best friends Charlie and Jimbo, while eavesdropping on the teacher's lounge in order to discover whether Jim is going to be sent to reform school (he's not, his older sister is just torturing him), hear two of their teachers speaking in a strange language to each other. Charlie, the more reckless of the pair, decides to investigate. Needless to say, Charlie soon disappears, possibly captured by unnaturally calm guys in expensive-looking light-grey suits, and it is left to the cautious Jim to rescue him. Along the way, a motorcycle is stolen, a kitchen chair is tossed off a balcony, and a biker gets a jam sandwich to the face.
boom! It's so funny that my family couldn't stand me sitting on the couch laughing my head off, and I ended up reading almost the entire second half out loud to them. It's dry funny, outrageous-events-filtered-through-a-kid's-literal-perspective funny, funny the way optimism can be funny sometimes. And if you don't think those kinds of funny are funny, there's a fair amount of poking, sarcasm, and people getting hit with sticks. I finished the book, we all caught our breath, and I handed it to my 8-year-old, who opened it to the first page.
Sometimes, reading a kid book written by an author who usually writes for grownups, you get the suspicion that said Author has something of an axe to grind. That Author has been reading the books his/her own kid has been reading, and thinks they are lacking in some way - not witty enough, or too snarky, or too message-y, and not capitalizing on the true, sunny, carefree, plot-heavy potential of Children's Literature. I just re-read Thurber's The 13 Clocks (thank you thank you New York Review of Books) and you can tell that Thurber, taking a break from his adult writing duties, was thinking, "Hell with it, I am going to write what I would have wanted to read when I was a kid."
I am not saying Mark Haddon seems all axe-y grindy here. Not at all. Exactly the opposite. In fact, boom! is making me re-think The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which, as an adult book, was frequently recommended for teen readers. Maybe, in fact, it was a teen book to begin with. Or maybe Mark Haddon doesn't give a crap what market he's writing to, and he'll be screamingly funny and breathlessly plotted no matter whether he's writing about jam sandwiches or cancer.
boom! is a treat. Read it out loud to a class (give them a little help with the British-isms) and prepare for liftoff.