The Drake Equation, by Bart King

The Drake Equation, by Bart King (Disney-Hyperion, May 10, 2016) is an excellent choice for middle school kids (10-11 year olds in particular) who are still liking their science fiction a tad on the whacky side, but who are well into reading solid stories that offer more than silliness. 

Noah's a bird watcher, a rather lonely hobby for a middle school kid, but one that he's passionate about.   Checking on wood duck nesting boxes in a woods near his home, he finds something much rarer--a family of black swifts.  And even rarer still, he finds a strange device--a sort of swirly-colored round thingy.  When he investigates the device with the help of his two best friends, twins Jason and Jenny, he discovers that it can bestow upon him a range of incredible powers, like shooting freeze rays from his hands.  But there are complications--the menu of the device doesn't come with much in the way of explanations; the kid who's been bullying Noah doesn't appreciate having been basically turned into a sac of protoplasm (even though it was temporary), and Noah, being the trusting sort, perhaps made a mistake in showing the device to his science teacher.  Almost certainly, using it to halt construction on a subdivision threatening the black swifts was the right thing to do, except that it ended up with his parent's getting arrested...

And then Noah finds out who (or possibly what) is on the other end of the device, and why it was created, and learns that the stakes are much higher than just keeping  the device from falling into the wrong hands, or saving the swifts....(here's a hint, without spoiling it too much--the titular Drake Equation, in Noah's mind, refers to wood-duck nesting boxes; for most people, it gives an estimate of the number of extraterrestrial civilizations that might be out there).

I don't know if kids these days ever read Edward Eager (I did, and am a big fan!).  This is a similar sort of story--ordinary kids having their lives thrown into turmoil when they find a magical device (although this story is science fiction with regard to its fundamental premise, the device functions like magic), and having to master the magic, and figure out its rules, while coping with the consequence of things going wrong before they've finished the figuring out.   And then the particular adventure ends, and the magic is put away, but with lots of room left for more to come....

As is the case with Eager's kids, the characters here are interesting, relatable, and well-rounded, with some cute little kids getting involved as well (I think this will appeal to the target audience-- many middle school kids, now they are the big ones, feel a nostalgic fondness for third and fourth graders).  There are plenty of amusing bits, but while it's not a serious, entirely straight-faced story, it never gets farcical. 

Though I enjoyed the book, it didn't quite work perfectly for me; I think the action felt a tad jerky, careening around more than is to my personal taste, especially with regard to the arrival of the big confrontation at the end.   But readers younger than me who like humorous stories about ordinary kids having extraordinary things happen to them will probably find it very much to their taste.

I personally liked very the bird-watchers way in which Noah views the people around him, and I am all in favor of protecting black swift habitat!

For those interested in diversity--Noah's friend Jenny (a strong secondary character) uses a wheelchair (and there are not many wheelchair-using kids in middle grade speculative fiction, especially ones where I don't find things that bother me with regard to "wheel-chair not being an issue" when necessary for the plot.  The only other wheelchair using kid I can think off in a recent MG fantasy got swept over a waterfall and spent the night in a tree, all in his wheelchair.  I spent a lot of time brooding on the waterfall in particular).

Disclaimer:  An ARC of The Drake Equation was originally picked up happily at ALA, then taken from me when my car was stolen (the car came back with the addition of some beer bottles, but minus severall (though by no means all) of the books that were in it, and Bart King generously sent me a copy so I could finish reading it (thanks!).


  1. I agree with the wheelchair and remember the other book with the waterfall! I can't think of any other middle grade books that feature children who want to watch birds! (Also lack of modern children who like to knit or quilt... and just saying the words makes me realize why. Sigh.)

  2. I really appreciate thoughtful book reviews—especially when the book in question is mine! Thank you, Charlotte.


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