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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.
The Unknowns

by Benedict Carey

“People knew nothing, zero, about what was going on literally right beneath their feet. The plotting at the nuclear plant. The twisted plans for the island. The heinous black heart of Folsom: We were oblivious back then, like moths circling a fire.” Such is the state of the residents of Folsom Adjacent, an island trailer-park community that exists solely, amid stultifying dullness and baking heat, to support the big nuclear plant there, and that makes Lucky’s Hard Pan (The Higher Power of Lucky, BCCB 1/07) seem like luxury.

Of course, the Adjacent residents who happen on the secret are a pair of kids. Di, who is nicknamed—initially derisively, now affectionately—“Lady Di,”
and her scrawny little pal known as “Tom Jones” (nobody can bother to pronounce or find out his real, long, Arabic name), are tense enough at the prospect of starting middle school off the island, and things get worse when Adjacent residents start disappearing. The latest victim is Di and Tom’s dear and clever friend Mrs. Clarke, who has always helped them with their math; while the authorities shrug the events off, the two kids realize that Mrs. Clarke has left them a mathematical clue. Solving that one leads to another, solving that one leads to another, and so on; as the kids solve the problems, they begin to learn more about the secret world of and under Adjacent, and they find allies in some of their scarier co-residents—but will it be enough to save Mrs. Clarke and defeat the nefarious plans of Folsom Electric?

Carey takes the puzzle-book format, familiar in works from Raskin’s The Westing Game (BCCB 9/78) to Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer (BCCB 7/04), and gives it a rawboned and rich human story with a vivid sense of place. The math-centered clues are accessible but not obvious, involving gradients, right triangles, graph coordinates, and the like; even more cleverly, their solutions visually accrue into a map of the realm underneath Adjacent, so that mathematics is literally explaining the protagonists’ world. Yet readers not absorbed by the math can sit back, let Di, Tom, and their cohorts do the numeric labors, and simply enjoy the adventure. The intricacies of the kids’ travel through the mysterious world underneath Adjacent (entered through a huge trash heap) are suspenseful and fascinating, while there’s a touch of Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society (BCCB 5/07) in notion of the clever youngsters using their talents to infiltrate and defeat a powerful collective enemy. The writing crackles with plainspoken wit, and nifty little details sparkle in odd places (many of the names are joking plays on the famous, with the Epic Poets, led by Owen Wilfred, a frightening gang at school, and Rene D. Quartez and Pascal
Blasé the bullies-in-chief in Adjacent). Though the style is far from sentimental, there are touches of understated poignancy in the fates of some less-fortunate Adjacent residents (a depressing category indeed), and Di and Tom are sketched in bold, quick strokes that make them effectively individual and sympathetic. The narrative voice is never identified, but it sounds like the ramblings of another resident of Adjacent, who’s accustomed to the place’s deficits and peculiarities and reflects its blinkered view, and who tells a whale of a good story.

“Once people start thinking, as Mrs. Clarke would have said, all bets are off.” That’s certainly true in the case of Tom, Di, and the other Adjacent residents,
who begin to find they have capabilities and connections beyond their expectations as well as the ability to solve a mystery that will save their homes. Will that message inspire readers as well? Maybe, but even if it doesn’t, they’ll find plenty of diversion in this atmospheric tale of determined kids using their brains and talents to find their way through a strange and daunting world—above ground as well as below it.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor


Cover image by Joshua Middleton from The Unknowns ©2009. Used by permission of Abrams Books for Young Readers.

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This page was last updated on June 1, 2009.