The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens. Alfred A. Knopf Books for Younger Readers, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Middle grade.
The Plot: Christmas Eve. Three small children are hurried out into a waiting car. Kate, 4, promises her mother to keep her younger brother and sister safe. It is the last time the three children see their parents. As the years pass, they go from orphanage to orphanage, always hoping their parents will show up.
Ten years later, Kate, now 14, Michael, 12, and Emma, 11, arrive at the end of the line. An empty house in Cambridge Falls, a desolate city in upstate New York. While wandering around, they find a room and an old blank book. An old photo is placed inside the book and suddenly the three find themselves about ten years in the past… when the witch came to Cambridge Falls and stole the village children.
Kate, Michael, and Emma discover a world with witches and monsters, with ancient magics and prophecies. They find themselves in danger, trapped in the past.
The Good: At first, Kate, Michael and Emma are pinballs. Sent from one orphange to another, with no home. And then what happens in the final place they are sent to? They are pinballs once again, except now they are sent back and forth in time. When stuck in the past, they find themselves running from a witch and into the territory of dwarves, each group looking to use the children to find the mysterious book that allows one to travel in time and space. Finally, though, the three assert themselves, take control, and stop running away and start running to something. They stop being pinballs. Oh, there is still danger. But there is this wonderful shift, about midway through, when they stopped being “acted upon,” when they no longer react and instead act. Along the way, the make enemies and find allies.
Time travel and fantasy? Delicious! Especially time travel that treats time as “wibbly wobbly timey wimey…stuff.” To a certain extent, they can change the past. Other things remain fixed. Some people may have memories of both the past before it was changed and the past as it is now. It is both confusing and perfectly clear.
Kate, Michael, and Emma are each unique. Kate is the child who grew up before her time, always responsible for her siblings, always the leader, always having to think things through. All these traits are needed in her battles of logic and strategy with the witch, the Countess. Emma, only one when her parents disappeared, has learned to fight, to act first and think later. These characteristics serve her well when she gets separated from her siblings and finds herself rallying people to battle the Countess. The adrenaline filled chases and fights require the quick thinking and action she’s learned. And Michael — I know this may sound strange, but his obsession with books, especially a book about dwarves, turns out to be a real life saver.
Fast pacing, adventure, and maybe it helped that I was reading this on a rainy day, but when Kate, Michael and Emma were running through the woods, seeking escape from the murderous Screechers, damp and tired and cold, I was damp and tired and cold right there with them. Actually, I got up and made a hot chocolate to keep me going.
This is first in a trilogy; and the author, John Stephens, is a television writer and producer. Being how much TV I watch, I always find it interesting when a writer from one favorite area crosses over into another.