Middle grade science fiction has always been a somewhat underserved genre, compared to young adult SF. Luckily, Tony DiTerlizzi's second WondLa book came out recently, to provide some great sci-fi adventures for the 8-12 year-olds in your life.
The science fiction aimed at this age group tends to be in the comic vein (who didn't love My Teacher Flunked the Planet?) so this straight-up action and adventure book is a welcome departure. The Caldecott-winning DiTerlizzi may be best known for his work on The Spiderwick Chronicles, with author Holly Black. But here, he pulls double duty as author and illustrator — and the result is stranger and more charming. Both books in the series, The Search for WondLa and A Hero for WondLa, follow twelve (and then thirteen) year-old Eva Nine as she explores the world of Orbona.
Eva Nine has been raised in a Sanctuary by MUTHR (a Multi-Utility Task Helper Robot). She has never been outside, though she is required to practice survival skills for when she is older. This has made her somewhat testy. Eventually, she does get out, and the world is not what she has been told to expect.
The first book is a relatively straightforward tale of survival on an alien planet. Eva escapes from bad aliens, and befriends good ones. It turns out she has a psychic connection to some of the animal life on Orbona and uses this to communicate with the sweet (and exceptionally large) tardigrade Otto. Her other companion is Rovender Kitt, an alien who's on a long journey. As they travel to villages and the Capital city Solas, Eva Nine comes to understand and love the unexpected world of Orbona. Eventually Eva's search for other humans leads them to the ruins of a human city. Throughout the book, Eva shows off all the traits of a heroine: she's resourceful and clever when getting out of trouble, but also kind, empathetic and loyal.
The second book begins mere hours after the first one, though its tone has darkened. Eva finally meets some humans and travels to their city of New Attica. Suddenly, there are annoying teenage girls (they're supposed to be annoying and aren't around for long), mindless consumerism and intrigue. New Attica is a false utopia, where none of the humans know about the aliens, mind control is practiced, and the leaders are preparing for war. This will not surprise any adult readers, but certainly surprises Eva and will probably surprise the fifth-graders reading the book.
Eva escapes again, with the help of more friendly aliens and humans (and a… er… family member) to warn the aliens of the impending war. In the meantime, she has begun to piece together the history of humans and their Sanctuaries. Again, the adults will have it all put together early on, while the specifics still seem to elude Eva Nine. Though I was caught off guard by Eva's experience with the Heart of the Forest.
One of the most refreshing things about the books is their willingness to deal in complexity (the fact that a character mentions this in book two is one of the minor hazards of reading children's fiction). The aliens are neither bad nor good, but some combination. Most of the humans are, too. Even the baddest guy from the first book has honorable intentions (which do not save him). And while the books' anti-fake food stance seems indebted to the local food movement, most technology is presented in a positive light. The clothing technology may have reached its apex in Eva's world.
The books are full of moral themes and teachable moments, but not in an overly cloying or awful way. The second book has moments where it felt the moral was being imparted for rather too long. But as the themes had changed from ideas about safety, truth and adapting to circumstances in the first book to family and forgiveness, this is perhaps understandable. I also appreciate DiTerlizzi's subversion of certain, oh-so-annoying tropes. The adorable and mischievous "floatazoan" don't become side-kicks or pets — they're just trouble.
The world is also wildly inventive, with wandering forests, flying whales and tardigrades big enough to ride on. DiTerlizzi's illustrations only add to this fantastical landscape and menagerie. Sometimes the spreads at the beginning of a chapter give away plot points. I have yet to decide if this is a bad thing, or a gentle warning to the more anxious child readers. DiTerlizzi's illustrations make for lovely and occasionally scary images that capture Eva's world. The books are packed with great characters, tons of action and the kind of moral questions that preoccupy real pre-teens. They're the perfect summer kiddie read.
The Search for WondLa and A Hero for WondLa available now from Simon and Schuster.