Every year I swear to myself that I’ll review at least one self-published book written for kids. And every year I manage to do it, but only after sifting through countless manuscripts. The process is as close as I ever come to living the swanky life of an unpaid publishing company intern. Your slush piles ain’t got nothin’ on my slush piles. Why do I do it? Because every once in a great while I hit gold. Pure, uncut, rarified gold, my friend. I find a book that really is remarkable. Really is worth reading. Finding a picture book that falls into that category is hard enough. Chapter books for middle grade readers can be even trickier. The last time it happened was back in 2008 when I reviewed B.B. Wurge’s Billy and the Birdfrogs. Now at the tail end of 2012 I find the remarkable, hilarious, exciting, and downright diamond-in-the-rough worthy Henry and the Incredibly Incorrigible, Inconveniently Intelligent Smart Human. A smart little novel with a catchy hook I’ve not seen in a book for kids before, hand this one to the next kid who comes you whining that their teacher told them to read something “science fiction”. They’ll moan no more, guaranteed.
They say the 13th upgrade is the hardest. Insufficient comfort for a robot like Henry, though. Because of a bug in his system Henry just can’t keep up with the other kids in his class. Things seem pretty gloomy until good news arrives. Henry’s dad has just received a fantastic new appliance. It’s the HueManTech ETC-420- GX-2, a top of the line human meant to do menial tasks around the home. Trouble is, the human’s good. Too good. And the more time Henry spends with it, the more he comes to suspect that this human might be so smart it could be used as a weapon by the government itself. What’s a kid to do when his best friend’s an appliance? Save the day, of course.
The basic premise that robots are the productive members of society and humans merely their appliances is a joke that by all rights should get old fast. What’s remarkable is that not only does Messina pull it off, she turns it into world building. Slowly you begin to envision the fields where wild consoles are harvested and turned into video games. Where prisons are kept at ridiculously high temperatures to keep rogue robots in check. Where fire isn’t a concern but water can be death itself. To make the idea of robots human and humans robots, Messina had to be extraordinarily clear from page one onward about where Henry lived and what his world was like. At the same time, she sets him in a space that’s familiar to many a kid reader. What child can’t relate to being called on in class and unable to conjure up the correct answer at a moment’s notice? That’s the sly trick of the novel. It couches the strange in the familiar and ends up the stronger for it.
If the child reader is anything like myself then they’ll begin the book by trying to figure out if this is an entirely alternate reality, or if it’s some kind of post-apocalyptic world where robots have taken over and humanity has long since been forgotten. I kept wavering between the two possibilities for the better part of the book. This feeling was fed into by little hints Messina posed from time to time. For example, at one point E asks Henry where original ideas come from if robots are programmed to replicate only the same ideas over and over again. Henry finds this to be an impossible paradox, suggesting perhaps that robots aren’t the be all and end all. Later it becomes clear that there may be a conspiracy surrounding the creation of humans in the first place. I won’t ruin for you whether one theory or another was correct. Regardless, it satisfies sufficiently.
There are some distinct horrorific elements to the tale, but they’re told as matter-of-factly as if this were everyday fare. Humans that fail in their programming are sent to be compacted, easy peasy. It sort of has a slow creeping horror when you hear that. And really it isn’t until E is on the precipice of his own compaction that it’s drilled home to the reader. I had visions of the song “Worthless” from The Brave Little Toaster as all this happened. Or maybe Soylent Green. The funny thing is that though Messina ratchets up the tension, you don’t get a clear sense of the bloody process involved. And that is a-okay with me.
Alas, due to the number of times the book repeats the human’s official name of HueManTech ETC-420- GX-2, I’m afraid this won’t exactly be a readaloud, unless the reader is willing to shorten the little human’s name “E” or “ETC” for the bulk of the book. Aside from that it’s a pretty compact, smart bit of a novel. The kind of book that’ll make kids question the ease with which they treat their own iPads, iPods, and other handy dandy devices like things without feelings. A great discussion topic would be a thought about a next generation tablet so smart it has opinions of its own. Hey, man. Stranger things could happen. Just read this book if you don’t believe me.
On shelves now.
Source: Copy sent from author for review.
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There is a book trailer that I particularly like…