The Plot: These are the three Hardscrabble children. Let them introduce themselves: “Otto was the oldest, and the oddest. Then there was Lucia, who wished something interesting would happen. Last of all was Max, who always thought he knew better.”
Something interesting happens when their father goes away on business and sends his children, ages ten to thirteen, to stay with an aunt in London. The problem is, the aunt is herself away on holiday. When they realize that staying in London on their own is not a great idea, Otto, Lucia, and Max set off to find their great-aunt Haddie Piggit. Details such as having never met her and not quite knowing where she is won’t stand in their way, especially when there is a possibility that their great aunt knows something about the disappearance of their mother years before.
The Good: The story of the three Hardscrabbles are told by one of the three. They won’t tell, but my guess is Lucia because of one of the chapter headings: “In which we meet the Hardscrabbles, unearth a triceratops bone, and begin to like Lucia even more.” Yes, that “even more” is part of the reason I suspect Lucia of authorship. But perhaps it is Max, because later we are told “No one knew what Max did up on the chimney, and no one cared enough to try to find out. Which just goes to show, you should always pay attention to the youngest.” But perhaps it is Otto, because this observation sounds more like a thirteen year old speaking: “They never enjoyed it when adults playfully lied to them. The adults always think they’re being amusing and imaginative, just like children. But kids never lie playfully. They lie as if their lives depended on it.”
How best to describe the humor? It is dark, delicious, biting, sarcastic, arch, and smart. The story itself is smart — almost deceptively so — and with the many layers, I can easily see this appealing to middle school kids , who are about the age of Otto and Lucia. Oh, the language — “All in all they were in that gorgeous state of mind in which they felt free and unafraid and sharply aware of how large and exciting the world was. In other words, it hadn’t gotten dark outside yet.” Here is a bit on Max “knowing better” about the definition of the word “restive,” showing also how the unknown narrator adds asides to the reader: “”Restive doesn’t mean tired,” Max said finally. “It means nervous.” It does actually. I looked it up later. However, I woudn’t advise using that word because it will only annoy people, and they will think you are a giant-size prat.” Maybe Lucia is the narrator after all.
The Hardscrabbles have not had an easy life. Their mother disappeared years ago, and rumors fly in their tiny village, including ones about Otto, thirteen. It’s said that he strangled his mother with the very scarf he wears day and night, summer and winter. (Don’t worry, he didn’t. It’s not that kind of book.) Their father is an artist whose specialty is painting portraits of former royalty, that is, royalty who have lost their thrones and kingdom. It doesn’t pay well and it requires frequent travel. The isolation brought about by their mother going missing (“you can’t have dogs sniffing through your garden to find your missing mum without their being some serious damage to your family’s reputation“) makes these three siblings a tight group, so tight that even though Otto does not speak Lucia understands everything he says with his invented sign language.
The reader finds out that all that the narrator tells us in that first sentence is true. Otto is not just odd; he likes odd things, including odd stories. He manages to acquire a cat with a fifth leg and becomes caught up in the tale of “the Kneebone Boy.” When the children finally find Great-Aunt Haddie, she is living near the Kneebone Castle. The Kneebone Boy is the first boy born in the Kneebone family every generation, a boy with bat ears and claws and other things that require his family to keep him locked away from prying eyes.
Lucia’s desire for adventure leads her to push the three to not go home when they discover their original plan to stay in London has fallen apart. This leads to a day of freedom in London, a scary encounter by a river, and the ultimate discovery of Great-Aunt Haddie.
Max is really a know it all. He deciphers the clues in the one letter they have from Haddie, helping them to discover her. These three threads, the three interests of the Hardscrabbles, weave together to form not just an adventure (children alone, figuring things out!) and a mystery (what happened to their mother? is there a real Kneebone Boy?) but also a story about finding out the truth of things. Sometimes the truth is fun (a secret passage!) and other times, not so much (the mystery of their mother).
Readalikes easily spring to mind: Lemony Snicket, The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood. For example, one chapter heading warns “in which something awful happens but I can’t say what it is.” Where The Kneebone Boy differs from these books is that, despite the initial appearance of being set in a universe as odd as Otto, it turns out to be very real. When I got to the end of The Kneebone Boy, and realized how story and the tales told shape people, their expectations, their lives, I shivered with the wonderful deliciousness of it all.
What else? A folly! It has a castle folly. And the cover. I love seeing a cover created just for a book. More on the tale of the cover at the MacKids blog. I think it captures Lucia, Otto, and Max perfectly. They look, I think, the way Lucia wants them to look: you’re not quite sure of them. And hidden in the trees…the legs of…who? And is that a crumbling castle in the background?