After squandering almost all of his time, 10-year-old Alto Quack sets off on a desperate journey to find the Emperor of Time and beg for some more in this inventive children’s story.
Alto, “the biggest time-waster in the 463-year history of the village of Nonesuch,” receives a painful wake-up call one morning when a mysterious old man informs him that he only has three hours left to live. The man, who introduces himself as the Keeper of Time, tells Alto that since he has “squandered millions of seconds, hundreds of thousands of hours, and untold moments on foolish trifles and frivolous vanities,” his time will soon run out and he will be given no more. When Alto tries to put some of the blame onto his parents, he’s reminded that they warned him repeatedly of the dangers of time wasted. Forced to accept responsibility for his mistakes, Alto leaves home in search of the Emperor of Time, who is the only one capable of giving Alto more time. With each second ticking away, Alto enters the Forbidden Forest where he meets an odd assortment of characters, including a dying man who tries to trade gold for time and a crowd of ghosts who teach Alto that the real cost of material things isn’t money, but time. Alto’s guide through the forest, a young girl named Tallulah, explains the origins of the piranhalike creatures that inhabit the area. The creatures are “minute munchers” and “hour devourers” that feed on wasted time. “To my little darlings,” Tallulah says, “wasted time smells like toasted marshmallows.” King’s well-thought-out story is filled with memorable characters and clever dialogue. Wood’s detailed illustrations nicely complement the story, especially when Tallulah describes the River Un; the river, she explains, is made up of “millions of things undone, because the time in which to do them was wasted.” Wood’s illustration shows a foreboding stream of achievements unachieved and memories unlived. Gloom and sadness permeate the story, fittingly, given the seriousness of the subject, but never overwhelm it thanks to Alto’s hopefulness and the unconditional love that his parents show him up until the story’s ambiguous ending.
One of life’s most important lessons is at the heart of this refreshingly original story; adults as well as elementary-age children will benefit from Alto’s journey to find time.