No Passengers Beyond This Point, by Gennifer Choldenko (Dial, 2011, middle grade, 256 pages)
The three children are appalled when their mother abruptly tells them that their house has been foreclosed on, and that they must leave the next day for their uncle's in Colorado, on their own. 12 year old Finn and his sisters, teenaged India and young Mouse, are packed onto an airplane, their future suddenly uncertain. And when their plane lands unexpectedly in a deserted airport, and they are met not by Uncle Red but by a boy driving a taxi that's covered with feathers, things become even stranger.
Their new destination is the town of Falling Bird, where they receive a welcome of incredible warmth, and each child is taken taken to a new home, perfectly tailored to their daydreams...a place where happily ever after seems to have come true. But memories of their mother, and their dead father, intrude, and the houses collapse around them after the first night. Like many places that seem too perfect to be real, Falling Bird soon shows, to Finn and Mouse in particuarl, a different, darker face.
Each child has been given a clock, that's ticking down the time until they must stay there forever. Each child has a piece of a puzzle that must be joined before they can leave. But to find the way out, clues must be deciphered, and obstacles overcome...or they will never be a family again.
Told in the alternating points of view of the three children, it's a complicated and twisty story where the stakes are high, and both the protagonists, and the reader, only gradually realize what is going on. Each of the children comes across clearly as an individual--not necessarily likable, all the time, especially prickly, self-centered India, but each quirkily distinct, and, in the end, someone to care about.
Falling Bird is a place of classic fairy tale ensnarement--a place where the unthinking can find themselves trapped, a limbo where a person can be lost forever. Fortunately for India, Finn, and the precocious Mouse, their will to find their way out proves stronger than its wiles and machinations. The place is never Explained, but it does become clear what has happened...and the ending, mercifully, is a happy one.
No Passengers Beyond This Point could be described as Heck meets Departure Time meets The Kneebone Boy....combining the surreal, very busy afterlife of the one with the wistful surreal melancholy of the other, with the siblings in confusing circumstances of the third. Despite the fantasy that underpins the story, and provides the basis of the action, it's primarily a character driven book, with lots of emotional turmoil. Those who don't like introspective stories might become impatient, and want the fantasy explained and explored in greater depth, but those who do like such stories, who are content to go along with the ride, and who like quirky kids, should enjoy this one lots.
I'm pretty sure I did like this one myself (I read it with fixed, engrossed, even thoughtful and absorbed attention, and I liked Choldenko's smoothly snappy writing lots)...but I can't be certain whether others will or not, because, I, um, read the ending quite soon after the kids arrived in Falling Bird. I was growing a tad vexed by the incomprehensible turns of events, and had to know if there was a point. Turns out there was, and it colored my reading experience rather dramatically...for the better, but so much so that I can't begin to comprehend what a reader who doesn't know what has happened will make of the story. (Incidentally, the clues are there pretty early on, for those who are good at clues, but I am not. For those who like clues, and don't mind possible spoilers, I have put the two most obvious ones at the end).
Other thoughts, that might well prove more useful than my own, can be found at Ms. Yingling Reads, Collecting Children's Books (scroll down quite far), and My Brain on Books.
Disclaimer: ARC received from the publisher.
(ample spoiler space)
(clues are in italics, to make them harder to read)
The place is called Falling Bird, and the kids have to find a black box.