Sky Jumpers, by Peggy Eddleman (Random House, 2013), is a post-apocalypse sci-fi story in a future Earth written for middle grade readers, and that is a very rare thing these days. It is a solid introduction to this sort of sci fi for younger readers, with much to recommend it. But it didn't, for me, at least, quite rise above the level of "very good" to "great."
Hope is an ordinary kid. She's a tomboy, often late to school and untidy. She's adopted, and sometimes wonders about her birth parents. She's worried about how she compares to other kids. But Hope's life isn't as normal as one might think, for the kids of her generation have no memories of what like was like for their grandparents before the "green bombs" fell, and life as humanity knew it ended. The bombs weren't radioactive, but they altered the chemical composition of reality. Most people died, but the founders of Hope's community found shelter in a valley surrounded by a swath of toxic air, known as "bomb breath." Daredevil Hope has learned that the killer bomb breath is denser than normal air, so you can jump into it off of impossibly tall cliff tops (being careful not to breath) and pass through to safety...and she is the best and bravest of the sky jumping kids.
me--I am perfectly happy to accept vast chemical changes in reality, so this struck me as reasonable. Sky jumping sounds like fun, but I would be scared.
What Hope is bad at is inventing. Because of the bombs, old technologically no longer worked (changes in reality), and though there are paper records of the cool contrivances that once existed (which the older people still remember), ways of making things work have to be figured out again. And so all the kids are pressured to come up with useful inventions that will make things more like they once were.
me, reading along happily--neat!
Hope's current invention is, like her other efforts, a failure. She feels she has nothing to contribute to her community. But then (moving more briskly through the plot) word leaks out to the violent Raiders out in the wilds, busily raiding any community they can find, that her settlement has rediscovered antibiotics. And they attack, and Hope's father's life is in danger. Hope can save him...if she can escape through the wild winter weather and the poisonous gases. So the story becomes a tremendously exciting adventure that put Hope's sky jumping skills, and the daring spirit that made her jump in the first place, to the test. And it is rather cool the way Hope uses the bomb breath pockets to good effect viz raider foiling.
me--this was all good reading, but...but...
My first realization that maybe this wasn't a book I could love came when Hope and her classmates are sharing their latest inventions. One of the girls proudly presents hers--she's rediscovered hair curlers!
"I used to have to put curlers in my hair when it was wet," Ellie said, "and then wear them to bed. It's so hard to sleep in curlers!" (p 42). And her teacher is pleased with her.
Hair curlers???!!!?? Gender annoyance aside, curlers contribute nothing to the gravitas to the rebuilding of a lost world, no morning for the dead, etc.
I wanted to believe the characters sorrowed for the countless dead of the parents' generation, I wanted more sense of loss for the world that once was, and higher emotional stakes beyond the particular of "my father might die." I know it's a tall order, but I wanted this really nifty premise and fine heroine to be set in a story that, in the power of its writing, imagery, and metaphor, went beyond the (very interesting) particulars of the adventure into a larger thematic territory of rebuilding civilization (and I cannot believe that hair curling would be anyone's priority at this point). The set up was all there for something like that that, but it just didn't deliver a punch to the gut or a shock to the spirit, the way the best books do. And I know that's a lot to expect, but the potential was there...
That being said, it might well be a book that will set young readers down the path of science fiction, because it is an engaging story, and that's not a bad thing at all.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher for Cybils Award consideration.