The One Safe Place, by Tania Unsworth (Algonquin Young Readers, middle grade, April 29, 2014)
Climate change has brought North America to the brink of collapse. But shielded from the merciless sun in a remote valley, Devin and his grandfather have managed to keep a peaceful life going. Then Devin's grandfather dies. When the work of their farm proves too much for him, Devin sets out to find what's left of civilization. In a wreck of a city where feral children run wild (but the rich can still afford the water to keep their lawns green) Devin is taken under the wing of Kit, a girl who's a practiced thief. But then comes the promise of a refuge for children--a place where they will be safe and cared for--and though Devin has his doubts, he allows himself to be persuaded to enter that mysterious sanctuary.
And indeed, the Gabriel H. Penn Home for Children offers all the food, all the divertissements, and all the other creature comforts a kid might want. But Gabriel H. Penn did not have the well-being of children in mind when he established the Home. He was thinking solely of himself....and the rich old clients who might join him in benefiting from the "happy childhood" the Home provides for its young residents.
Devin does not fall for it. He can't help but be appalled by the zombie-like state the children periodically fall into, and senses there is a dark underside to the whole set-up (and boy is he is right!). And so he sets about solving the mysteries of the Home, and planning an escape.... On the plus side, Devin has perernatural gifts of memory conferred on him by his profound synesthesia, and he has allies among the kids who have their own abilities. One the down side, the trap they are in is a pretty tight one, and it will take a whole lot of luck for the ragtag group of kids to escape the "safe place" that is their prison.
"Plucky, quirky kids working together in a fantastical setting to defeat evil adults who are keeping them prisoners" is pretty much always a good plot, as far as I'm concerned, and this one was no exception. It's fun to see the dark side of the Home slowly becoming clear, and to get to know its young residents as they start to work together to escape. And I don't think I'm alone in this-- there is lots of kid appeal in this portrayal of the superficial elements that comprise "happy childhood" being horribly twisted, and the children fighting back, especially when the kids are well-drawn enough to have distinct personalities! Devin's synesthesia is a particularly engaging aspect of the story. Fascinating in and of itself, and allowing Unsworth plenty of scope for appealing descriptive language, it is a lot more than just an add-on specialness. It plays a Pointful role in the plot, which I appreciated lots.
I did feel, though, that the near-future climate horror was not quite as well done as may be-- though it certainly helps set up the paradise of the Home, giving good reasons for the kids to end up there, it felt like a bit of an unnecessary dystopian accessory to the sci-fi premise of what is really happening at the Home. I questioned the premise that there still have been enough left of civilization to support an uber-rich class (though the rich certainly good at surviving), and I wasn't able to accept the kids as believable products of catastrophic climate change. They were just a bit too much like kids of today (would Kit, for instance, uneducated street kid that she is, really be familiar with IQ tests?). I think that young readers won't notice or care, but it kept me personally from truly embracing the story.
Short answer--a good, solid story for the eleven year old or so who enjoys creepy sci fi suspense in which brave, resourceful kids are pitted against evil adults.
And now the part of review writing I always enjoy--going to see what the professional reviews said.
Here's the starred Kirkus review-- "A standout in the genre’s crowded landscape. (Dystopian thriller. 10-16)
Me--what's with that upper age range? The kids are 12ish, some younger...there's no romance...the violence is muted though disturbing...I'd say 12 or 13, tops. Any older and you run into readers of YA dystopia who will find this too tame.
No star from Publishers Weekly, but a very positive review-- "a
page-turning mix of suspense, intrigue, and anxiety. The kids are
genuine and quirky, just the right kind of mismatched misfits to snag
readers’ hearts. This is a wholly enjoyable journey, and a dystopian
vision with some great new twists."
Me--not sure my heart ever got snagged, exactly, but I agree with the main points here (though I think "dystopian" has become somewhat overused and cheapened these days). The major twist is indeed not one I can remember seeing before (though I'm not quite sure about this......).
Another star from School Library Journal-- "The suspense and dread build as the mystery gradually unfolds, but it
stops short of becoming truly horrific. The conclusion is fast-paced and
Me--nothing to disagree with here (although the spectre of old age trying to siphon off the vitality of the young is perhaps something that will be found truly horrific by those concerned about the collapse of Social Security as the Baby Boomers age...).