What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World, by Henry Clark (Little Brown, July 2013)
River, Freak, and Fiona are the last kids to live in the abandoned subdivision butting up against Hellsboro, where underground fires sparked by a chemical plant gone wrong have been burning for years. Everyday they meet at the bus stop by the old Underhill Mansion, though once at school Fiona goes her own way. But one day a sofa shows up on the curb next to their stop, and rummaging through it, looking for loose change, the kids find an exceedingly rare Zucchini crayon (from the limited edition Victory Garden set), perhaps the only one surviving.
And because of this crayon (long story) the kids find themselves part of a struggle between two opposing forces, centered on a mysterious intergalactic portal deep in the heart of toxic Hellsboro. On the side of Good (ie, keeping the Earth from being invaded by an army from another world) are the kids, an eccentric refugee from that alien world who's moved into the Underhill Mansion as part of a plan to keep the portal closed, and the Sofa. On the side of Bad is an immensely powerful criminal mastermind type, Edward Disin (also an alien), who's planning on enslaving all earthlings (and who was responsible for Hellsboro).
Disin has two weaknesses--he underestimates kids (which is why the threesome were recruited), and he has been deliberately infected with Compulsive Completest Disorder. He won't be able to think straight until he gets the Zucchini Crayon, but will that advantage be enough to allow the unlikely alliance of kids, sofa, and older non-earthly gentleman to stymy his plans?
The Sofa thinks it will. If the kids do their part...
This is a fine example of wacky sci fun for younger middle grade kids. It takes the wild and whimsical approach so common in elementary sci fi/fantasy and uses it to good effect in a longer, more thoughtful story. Sci fi and fantasy books, I think, offer tons of scope for pushing young
readers out beyond the boundaries of their own life experiences, and, in an appropriately limited way (you wouldn't want to give a nine-year-old The Left Hand of Darkness), that's what this book does.
The kids, likable and realistic characters, are brave and smart, but not Specially so. Their lives have been tragically damaged by the Hellsboro disaster, and this gives emotional impetus to their quest to stop Disin. Freak's father became an abusive alcoholic after Freak's sister died of cancer. River's parents were killed in a car accident that left him slightly lame. Fiona's twin sister died at birth--all these things happened because of the Hellsboro disaster.
There's further food for thought-- throughout the story there are small jabs against corporate power--Disin's commercial empire (cell phones and packaged food) is a key part of his evil plan to turn humanity into his mindless minions, and Hellsboro is just the sort of environmental disaster that happens in real life. And on top of that, the relationship between the three kids evolves nicely, ending with Fiona acknowledging the two boys, uncool though they might be, as friends. But the author doesn't underline these themes with a heavy hand, so it doesn't feel didactic.
A very good one, in short, for the young reader intrigued by science fiction who is ready to move up to a pretty substantial book.
Here's what I especially liked--the Sofa. It is a great sofa. When the kids first meet it, it is almost Halloween, and the Sofa has made an effort to present itself as a pirate. And the kids might not have special gifts, but the sofa does--it can tessar (as in A Wrinkle in Time).
ARC gratefully received from Ms. Yingling Reads