Translated children’s novels have a tough row to hoe. In my experience as a children’s librarian I’ll often find that folks react to them in a variety of different ways. Sometimes they like them, but often they’ll dislike the books and then fail to express what it is about the book they don’t like. Often it all breaks down into feelings. I’ve had people tell me that they found The Swan’s Child by Sjoerd Kuyper “special”, though they couldn’t pinpoint why. Others have said that The Squirrel’s Birthday and Other Parties by Toon Tellegen just wasn’t their cup of tea. I find this reaction to translated works frustrating but there’s little that I can do about it. I mean, you can’t contest a reader’s gut reaction, right? So it is with the deepest pleasure that I discovered Departure Time by Truus Matti. Part mystery, part fantasy, part philosophy (I keep comparing it in my head to Sophie’s World, but in a good way), I guarantee that once you start reading you may never feel inclined to stop. This is a book for the smart kids.
Two girls. The same girls? Impossible to say. When the book opens there are two competing narratives, and which one should you trust? Story #1 is about a nameless girl. She can remember nothing of her past and has no idea why she is struggling through a desert with only a bag full of music books by her side. Soon she finds a dilapidated hotel in the distance and upon entering is met by a gray fox and a large white rat. The two seem to mistake her for someone else at first, but as time goes on she earns their trust and their help in solving who she is and who the mysterious denizen of the hotel’s top floor might be. Story #2 weaves around Story #1 and is seemingly straightforward. Mouse’s father has died and in the depths of her grief and guilt, she remembers the events that led to his dying and the fateful letter that she is certain contributed to his demise. As readers parse the two stories they notice similarities between the two. Is Mouse the girl in Story #1? Who is the mysterious music player? The answers will honestly surprise you.
This is going to make me sound a bit off my nut, but you know what this book reminded me the most of? When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. There’s no good reason for this. Stead’s novel was a science fiction/historical fiction bit of realism, with a dash of the unexpected on the side. Departure Time in contrast appears to be realistic fantasy, or fantastical realism. Magical realism, let’s say. Just the same, there are similarities to be found between both books. In When You Reach Me the main character is speaking to us from the future about mysterious notes she discovered in the past. In Departure Time a girl in a desert finds clues that seem to have some connection to a different narrative about a girl living with her mother after her father’s death. And like When You Reach Me, this book isn’t afraid to chuck linear storytelling out the window in favor of something a little more eclectic. So while the desert storyline is straightforward, the other story leaps between talking about Mouse’s life before her father died and after. There’s more than a trace of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to the story as well, though at least in this book the big reveal isn’t downright silly. Sometimes children’s books contain plot twists that make more sense than their adult contemporaries.
Naturally what I really liked about this book were the mystery elements. It feels like Matti is feeding you clues throughout the text. In one storyline the girl has encountered a gray fox and a rat. In the other storyline, Mouse’s father has picked up her stuffed fox and rat toys. What is the connection? You slowly begin to wonder if the storyline about Mouse and her father will end and turn into the story of the girl in the desert. You start trying to figure out chronologically when this might occur. She has paint on her hands, so that must be from when she was painting her bedroom, right? And she has music books in her bag . . . but why? Coming up with any kind of an even remotely satisfying ending is the real challenge here, but I think Matti pulls it off. It doesn’t feel rushed or hurried. There’s not some surprise at the end that can’t be explained. Even the mystery person in the top of the hotel makes a certain amount of sense. There’s a lot of psychological groundwork going on here, but nothing on the surface that a kid isn’t also going to enjoy.
I admit that I didn’t know what to expect when I first picked up the book. Right at the start our desert heroine stumbles towards the mysterious hotel. The lights on the sign are blinking, however, and the text reads, “First one by one, H . . . then nothing, E . . . and then the L blinked – twice – all of them in poisonous pink: H, E, L, and L. It only lasted a second, and then all five went on again.” Now the book is a translation so I had to wonder about certain choices made by the translator. The original story being German, I think it’s safe to say that aside from the “L” blinking twice (which is a little obvious but oh well) this scene is probably identical to the one in the original book. Other phrases in the book again are probably straight, if rather poetic translations along the lines of, “It was a voice wrapped in a lovely smell.”
This is fun. Read a couple of the professional reviews of this book and you’ll notice they all have one thing in common: None of them ever mention the protagonist’s name. I don’t mean the girl in the desert who doesn’t remember it. I mean the girl who blames herself for her father’s death. It’s “Mouse” actually, or that’s at least the name she sometimes goes by. For most of the book, though, you find yourself feeling lost. You can go a long time without saying a character’s name, you know.
Originally hailing from the Netherlands, Departure Time (or Vertrektijd) takes risks. It expects the child reader to not only be able to follow a mysterious fantasy tale, but also a contemporary story that dips back and forth in time. Author Helen Frost once wrote a novel in verse called The Braid where stories and lines wove in and out of one another in a braid-like pattern. Departure Time conjures up a similar feel. This one is for the kids that loved When You Reach Me, The Westing Game, and maybe a book or two by E.L. Konigsburg. The kids who aren’t afraid to take risks with their reading. Some will fall by the wayside as the story progresses, but for those that make it to the end, there’s a reward waiting for them. A singular, memorable book.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Notes on the Cover: Oog. Oog and also blech. I know that this was the original cover, with a mere tweak made to the title, but this does not quite do. I can get adults to read it if I tell them the story and I can get kids to read it if I booktalk it with the cover hidden, but this is not a perfect situation. There is nothing about this jacket that intrigues or entices. Great book, but if ever a translated work deserved a new look, this was it.
Professional Reviews: Read reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, and two starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal.
Other Reviews: Now! Nederlands Letterenfonds (spoiler alert, though)