The Search for WondLa, by Tony DiTerlizzi (Simon and Schuster, 2010, middle grade, 496 pages)
Eva Nine has lived all her 12 years underground, alone except for her robotic care-giver, Muthr.* With the help of holograms, she studies outdoor survival skills, but has never left the self-contained world she lives in; even her wondering about the world is constrained by the limited reality she's known all her life. One small scrap of a picture, showing a girl, a grown-up, and a robot, with letters spelling out WondLa, is the cornerstone of her dreams...
But one day her underground sanctuary is blown to bits by an intruder, and Eva finds herself on her own, on the surface. And so she decides that she will look for WondLa. She is not alone for long-strange life forms, that her hand held computer can't identify, abound on the surface of this planet. Some are friendly---a non-human person named Rovender, and a behemothy creature whose thoughts she can share. But one in particular is actively hostile--the hunter who destroyed Eva's home, and who is determined to capture her, for reasons she cannot guess at.
Eva journeys through her strange world, lost at times in the wonders and the mysteries of real, vibrant life. And the two threads of her story--the exploration of the strange and the fantastic, and the clues to the mysteries falling into place--work together with the interesting cast of characters to create a satisfying story, one that held my attention and interest very nicely.
Well, maybe satisfying isn't quite the right world. The further one reads on into the book, the clearer it becomes that this is just an introduction to a much, much bigger story than one girl's adventures in an alien wonderland. The mystery of who is pursuing Eva is solved, and reveled to be an insignificant compared to the greater mystery of who Eva is. And just as we reach the end of the book, we get, not answers, but The Really Big Questions....so not satisfying, exactly, but, like I said, a very entertaining story and I am very anxious indeed to read book 2!
Science fiction for the 9-10 year old is thin on the ground, and most of it seems to consist of wacky aliens visiting modern earth. This, on the contrary, is a very rare indeed example of the alien-world-explored sub genre of sci fi for kids (the only other one I know of is The Green Book, aka Shine, by Jill Paton Walsh). It's one of my own favorite sub-genres, with its exploration of fauna and flora, the meetings of alien cultures, the (optional, but gratefully received) conflicts between technology and unfiltered experiences. And DiTerlizzi does a nice job with it, keeping things complicated without drowning the story in detail (he's helped in this regard by the many intricate drawings he includes). While the plot might not seem that original to the veteran sci fi reader, I think it is an excellent one to offer one's child, for whom the wonder of it all will be fresh and new (although possibly reminiscent of Star Wars).
But I don't think this is, necessarily, "a new fairy tale for the twenty-first century," as the back of the book would have us believe. Although the book clearly strives for the numinous, hair-raising on the back of the neck-ness of a truly powerful "fairy tale," it didn't deliver at a deep emotional level. For me at least, it stayed at the level of pleasant entertainment.
Short answer: an excellent choice for a present for a child (maybe one who's read Harry Potter and not yet started The Edge Chronicles**), and a fun book to read oneself.
(The book is linked to an interactive website. To fully enjoy it, you need a webcam. A blurb about the website is one of the first things the reader comes too...and I can't help but think it's kind of unfair to kids who don't have Internet access and webcams at home...This was a problem I had with Patrick Carmen's Skeleton Creek, where it was essential that the reader go on line. Here it's not necessary to the enjoyment of the story, but still it seems unfair...or am I just being a Luddite? The thought of interrupting my reading to visit the computer seems unpleasant to me. But maybe I would feel differently if I had a webcam at home, and could try out the augmented reality experience being offered...At The Digital Reader you can watch a video of it in action, and see for yourself).
* just goes to show what sort of reader of fictional names I am that it took 150 pages or so for the muthr = mother shoe to drop. I would still be unaware of Diagon Alley if my husband hadn't pointed it out to me....Clever readers might now want to speculate about WondLa...
**I'm currently reading the most recent book of the Edge Chronicles, by Paul Stewart Chris Riddell--The Immortals. Similar in feel--human child exploring strange land full of "alien" beings, but for slightly older readers, I think).
Review copy gratefully received from the publishers for Cybils consideration.