The Book That Proves Time Travel Happens
Author: Henry Clark
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (To be released April 14, 2015)
Ambrose Brody and his best friend, Tom Xui, meet a girl at the carnival and she takes them on a trip back in time to 1852. For three children of color (black, Chinese and Gypsy), it is a dangerous time to land, and they race to escape bounty hunters and other bad guys. Things gt even worse when they return to their own time to find it significantly altered... for the worse. As they race back and forth in time trying to fix what they have broken, they are aided by a copy of the I-Ching, a 3000 year old book of Chinese wisdom that mysteriously uses Morse code to give them clues about what to do.
I felt pretty mixed up about this book. The I-Ching/Morse code part was brilliant and will intrigue young readers a lot, the history was interesting and the action exciting. I had three problems with the book, but I don't know if middle grade readers will overlook them or not. The first is that the time travel issues seemed awfully reminiscent of the Back to the Future plot lines and other time travel tropes. That likely won't bother young readers who may not have read many time travel stories. The second is that the "bad guys" are drawn with such a broad brush that they feel like caricatures. I would guess that this will bother some readers, whether they are able to identify what is wrong or not.
The third problem is the most serious and troubling to me. While I admire the author for trying to include diverse (or one might say, normal and reflective of real life) characters, the result is quite stilted. I never got any sense of Ambrose at all and would not have known he was black if it were not revealed to us. Yes, revealed like an "aha!" moment. The depictions of his friend, Tim, as a Chinese boy and Shofranka ("Frankie") as a Gypsy girl only enforced stereotypes. I especially cringed at the following exchange which starts with Frankie speaking:
"I hope you two don't believe all the things you may have heard about Gypsies," she said as she fished around in the depths of the lock.
"Like what?" asked Tom.
"Like some of us are experts at getting into places we're not supposed to. I'm guessing you're both too smart to believe such nasty ethnic stereotypes." The lock sprang open. "Am I right?"
Ouch. While the author may think he is being clever, it hardly dispels nasty ethnic stereotypes to first make sure your readers know what those stereotypes are when many readers likely will have never heard them, and then go on to reinforce the stereotypes while ha ha dismissing them.
So, while there are many things to like about this book, and while it is clever and well plotted for the most part, and while many children will likely enjoy it, I can only give it a tepid recommendation.
Three stars out of five.