Straight-to-paperback works of fiction do not tend to win great and prestigious literary awards. The term “paperback writer” has never been a term one strives to attain (unless you happen to find yourself in a Beatles song, of course). I think that it’s fair to say that this is a basic elemental truth that extends to all reading levels, from adults to tiny tots. So it was with great confusion that I found Boots and Pieces by Emily Ecton. It’s a straight-to-paperback work of children’s fiction, which generally tends to be a warning sign. Generally that would be enough for me right there but there was something compelling about the premise. Girl and boy beat supernatural menace with the help of a neurotic Chihuahua named Mr. Boots. I gave the book the old smell test, which in the case of children’s books means reading the first page. The opening sentences read, “If Ty hadn’t kicked me in the head that day, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed when Stacy Sizemore disappeared. Heck, nobody else really seemed to, not at first anyway. Not until they found the pieces.” Shoot. That’s sort of compelling. Next thing I know I’m reading the whole thing from start to finish, silly premises and ridiculous random deaths and all. I’ll tell you right now that when the Newberys roll around in January there won’t be space for Ecton’s first book in this new series. That said, if there’s room on your shelf for a horror/comedy involving kids in snowsuits and gigantic gummy monsters, I think I’ve found something to fill the void.
Arlie’s life isn’t perfect but she’s got a pretty good grip on things. A typical day might consist of hanging out with her best friend Ty or rescuing her sister’s Chihuahua Mr. Boots from yet another degrading wardrobe (think: nail polish). But that was before Stacy Sizemore disappeared and the adults conspired to create an elaborate and transparent excuse. It was also before Arlie and Ty began to get a sense of the danger haunting the local lake. Why does the school’s science teacher want to hang out there all the time? What is Sheriff Shifflett doing covering up all the evidence of the disappearances? Together Arlie and Ty must get to the bottom of this mystery before the year’s annual prom party ends in tragedy and … pieces.
As a grown-up I was pretty much taken with the snappy dialogue and language found here. And kids certainly have proven time and time again that they are as keen on smart jokes as their adult counterparts (unless the perceived popularity of A Series of Unfortunate Events and Diary of a Wimpy Kid is all a great and grand mistake). So when I read through this book I was mighty pleased. Take as an example the moment when Ty’s dad tries to come up with an excuse as to why all the grown-ups are having a secret meeting. “My dad said it was a meeting of PHAPT – Parents Helping Actualize Prom Traditions. He said it was pronounced `Phat’ but with a silent second P. I think he must’ve worked on that one for a while.” Or Arlie describing her physical similarities to her sister. “Mom always tells me that we look alike, but I’m pretty sure it’s more in that before-and-after-picture kind of way.” Basically any author who can work the phrase “hairy eyeball” into a sentence in a work of middle grade fiction has my deep-seated appreciation.
Speaking of middle grade, the reading level on this is a bit of a question. Essentially we are talking about a plot that revolves heavily around a high school prom, and the main characters are definitely high schoolers. But the reading level falls into the 8-12 range (which is the proposed range the publisher has set as well). Kids adore reading about teenagers but the material is often too out of their age range. By making her stars teens Ecton not only gives her characters a little more independence and mobility than they’d have if they were ten, she makes them characters a kid can feel cool reading about. Pretty sneaky, sis. Admittedly, there are a couple mean teens that get eaten off-screen in the course of this book. If you or your child has a problem with this, best to avoid it entirely. Since we’re dealing with some pretty silly stuff I don’t think you’ll find too many eleven-year-olds crying to you about the fact that kids are being devoured. But who knows? I leave that call up to you.
Here’s something I thought of as I read the book. The story stars a blond girl and her black best friend who is a boy. Black best friends appear in children’s books all the time. No surprises there. But how many middle grade fantasy novels in contemporary America star blond girls? I know that this sounds odd, but blonds are usually relegated to the realm of villainess in both realistic fiction and mysteries (unless they’re old-timey heroines like Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, of course). I’m not blond myself but I recognize that it’s not entirely fair to keep them out of our literature. So when I saw the blond gal on the cover I had a sudden shock of “huh!” followed swiftly by “well, I’ll be hornswaggled.”
If I had any problem with this book it had to do with the location of the monster. The whole crux of the story revolves around the fact that there’s some kind of disgusting scary creature haunting the local lake. The creature is sort of centralized at that location. It’s not going to pick up and walk across town to surprise our heroes. And this would be fine except it means that our author has to continually find excuses to send her characters into a very specific point of danger over and over again. After a while the book begins to bear some similarities to those stage plays turned into full-length motion pictures. The characters keep walking around the same set over and over. And even if they may not notice this consciously, child readers will be a bit confused or bored.
As odd as it may sound, this book would actually fit well into a particular genre that doesn’t exactly have a name yet. It’s the genre that includes M.T. Anderson’s Whales on Stilts and Billy Hooten: Owlboy by Thomas E. Sniegoski. These are fun books with a penchant for action and adventure (sometimes with a retro feel thrown in for kicks). They tend to be written out of pure enjoyment on the author’s part with passing consideration for the child reader. Of course some kids just eat these up with a spoon while others aren’t sucked in. I can’t hope to guess what your own children will think of Ecton’s latest but it’s a fun book that doesn’t attempt to be anything other than an enjoyable monster mystery tale. If you’re looking for something a little bit different, here’s the book to possess.
- <Is the name “Emily Ecton” giving you a strange sense of deja vu? Well, do you listen to the NPR news quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”? Ecton’s a producer. And Peter Sagal’s daughter is a fan of this book.
- Ecton also answered questions in an interview here.