You ever read an author, love their work, and then wake up at 2 a.m. with the sneaky suspicion that maybe all their books are good and that you’ve simply been missing out all these years? That’s me, that is. I’m that. I’ve just read me a Tim Wynne-Jones book, thought it was top notch work, and then I started telling this to people. "Oh," they would say with sly little smiles plastered all over their faces. "And have you ever read anything by Tim before?" "Well, no," I’d confess. My compatriots would then nod sagely and the conversation would turn elsewhere, leaving me with the vague feeling that maybe I couldn’t judge "Red Zero and the End of the World" unless I’d somehow read its author’s entire children’s literary oeuvre. Then I’d remember that a good reviewer reviews the book in front of them and not how that book stands up in the face of the writer’s previous titles. So if you’re already a Tim Wynne-Jones fan, I have good and bad news for you. The good is that I loved this book and I think it’s great. The bad is that I don’t know if it’s any greater than anything else he’s ever done. I guess you’ll just have to pick yourself up a copy of this puppy and determine the rest for yourself.
In 1962 the end of the world is near. At least that’s what the crazy guy with the sign walking around the streets of Ottawa would have you believe. For Rex Norton-Norton (Rex Zero, for short), the world might well be ending for all he knows. He’s just moved to Ottawa from Vancouver (and, before that, from Britain) and since it’s the summer you would think that there would be some kids about to play with. There are kids, sure, but whenever Rex sees them they’re usually moving as fast as they can away from him. It’s very mysterious. Soon the boy befriends some of the locals and the truth comes out. The kids of the town are terrified because there’s a gigantic panther on the loose. It’s been sighted, but no adult is willing to believe this improbable possibility, which means that it’s up to the kids to capture the beast and save themselves. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War in a time of uncertainty and paranoia, author Tim Wynne-Jones constructs an elegant metaphor for a time when people fight against a misunderstood threat with potentially disasterous results.
We, as Americans, don’t read a lot of children’s books where the hero is a Brit who has moved to Canada. They’re all English speaking countries, but somehow such books are almost exotic to us. Even in the depths of their suburbia, they’re exotic. This, to my mind, is what sets Mr. Wynne-Jones apart as an author. He fills his book with distinctive details that round out the text and, at the same time, keep the story amusing to child readers. For example, I liked it when Rex sat watching television with his parents, slowly coming to the realization that they were so wrapped up in the program about the Cold War that they’ve forgotten he’s even there. Rex eventually feels so freaked out by the programs that he’s obliged to yell, "What am I doing here? . . . Somebody, please make me go to bed!" It’s bits like these that give the story the feeling that everything here is, somehow, "real".
You won’t find a shortage of quality children’s fiction pertaining to the 1960s in the world today. Paranoia makes for strong literature, particularly in these paranoia-laden times in which we live. Of course paranoia, which is to say kid-friendly paranoia, can take on a variety of different forms. In this particular book, it trickles down to the kids in the neighborhood, causing them to see monsters in the very streets around them. In books like The Loud Silence of Francine Green by Karen Cushman, though, the metaphor is a bit more open and blunt, rendering the book a mature and entirely different beastie. What distinguishes "Rex Zero" then is how child-friendly the entire book is. You like Rex. You like his kooky family. You like them in spite of the fact that writing original kooky families is almost impossible in this day and age. Child and adult readers are almost entirely kookied out. It takes a great deal of restraint and training to write one with as strong an undercurrent of truth as is found in "Rex Zero". I credit the fact that Mr. Wynne-Jones has based much of the story here on his own family and you can feel that love emanating from his writing. When Rex and his younger sister share a joke that only the two of them find funny and end up rolling under the kitchen table with laughter, that scene alone struck me as almost too true to write.
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)