By Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books (Random House imprint)
For Ages 9 and up
On shelves now
Sometimes I stop myself in the middle of the day and think random thoughts. Thoughts like, "Why am I so freaked out by pigeons with deformed feet?" or, "Is there a logical reason why grass never became a delicacy?" and even, "Did I like science fiction as a child?" That last question pops up more than the others, maybe because it’s worth pondering from a contemporary marketing/librarian standpoint. The conventional wisdom will tell you that science fiction for kids doesn’t sell. Of course, dig a little deeper beneath that statement and you’ll find exceptions to the rule. Bruce Coville’s My Teacher Is an Alien series, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau all come to mind. DuPrau’s book is the best example of a successful science fiction novel (what with the movie and all) and it seems appropriate to mention it in terms of the most recent title I just read. "First Light" by Rebecca Stead is a meticulous melding of science fiction, ecological fact, and crisp storytelling. Melding global warming and DNA, and set against a magnificently chilly backdrop, Stead creates a cohesive, gripping story without allowing her book to fall apart into incomprehensible goo.
Two kids. Two lives. First of all you have Peter. He’s happy enough living in New York City, but when his dad informs the family that they’re taking some months off to join him on his expedition to Greenland, the kid is seriously excited. It’s a pity that he’s been getting these headaches though. They’re not serious or anything, but once in a while Peter finds that if he looks at something far away he can suddenly zoom in on it like there’s a telescope inside of his eyes. That problem has nothing on Thea’s, though. Thea lives in Gracehope, a civilization of ice, skating, and dogs. Her home is in the center of a glacier and it is there that her people have survived for hundreds of years, purposefully hiding from the outside world. Thea is convinced that there must be a way out of Gracehope since the population is booming and supplies are running low. Unfortunately, her grandmother (and ruler of Gracehope) forbids any research into the matter. Yet soon enough Thea takes a chance and runs into Peter, leading to the discovery that their lives and pasts are oddly and inexorably linked.
Quite frankly, I just liked the writing. It’s interesting and to the point without forgetting to get a little descriptive now and again. For example, when Peter considers his father’s experience in the Arctic as opposed to his scholarly methodical university self, it occurs to the kid that being the son of such a man, "was a little like living with Clark Kent but never once getting to meet Superman." Larger overarching themes are treated with a similarly deft hand. I liked Stead’s handling of Peter’s mother’s depression. It’s a difficult topic, and it would be all too easy to turn his mom into a villain when she’s not feeling well. Instead, you have the distinct sense that she really can’t help getting whapped with a bad bout once in a while. In terms of readability, "First Light" will not bore your average middle grade child reader. It has a firm enough grasp on its own private world to convince you that what happens in Gracehope could happen anywhere.
I do not write fiction, but if I were to hazard a guess at what it is like to write a work of science-fiction as opposed to a work of fantasy, I would have to suspect that science-fiction was the harder row to hoe. After all, you need to place your world firmly in fact, and that means research. In Ms. Stead’s case it would have meant the research of the Arctic, DNA, ice, global warming, and who knows what else. Little throw away lines like, "It was against the law to bring dogs into Greenland – the Inuit wanted to keep their breed pure…" smack of the truth. Ditto the rumor that hidden somewhere in Greenland is, "a road on the ice cap built in secret by Volkswagen as a private test site for new cars." Sometimes convincing your reader that they’re in another world requires a realistic infusion of real facts. Lose your details, lose your readers. That’s why Peter’s superhuman abilities that emerge throughout the book don’t become superfluous. Not only does Stead ground them in fact but she also works them into an overriding theme concerning Peter’s mother’s job.
And can I say how much of a relief it was to meet a character like Jonas in this book? Jonas is Peter’s father’s research assistant and is part-Inuit. Were Stead a different writer she might have used this character to launch into a whole taking-care-of-the-Earth slash Indian-way-of-life kind of didactic poppycock. She would have made Jonas a symbol rather than a person. To her infinite credit, however, Jonas is none of those things. He is capable and interesting, but his purpose in this book is to act as a person that Peter can talk to when he can’t talk to his parents rather than some kind of fount of infinite wisdom.
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)