Two siblings solve logic puzzles to escape a parallel dimension in Penn’s middle-grade fantasy debut.
With her parents away on a business trip, studious 12-year-old Sophia Clark is tasked with babysitting her video game-obsessed, 10-year-old brother, Mark. They visit the local library, where Sophia discovers an ancient tome titled Almation: The Book of Secrets. Opening the book transports the Clark siblings to the titular Almation, a parallel dimension that’s filled with rich colors and odd creatures. A parchment scroll informs them that they have three days (or six hours, back in their original dimension) to find their way home. To do so, Sophia and Mark must solve a series of mind-boggling puzzles with the help of their new animal friends, which include a talking parrot, a fierce she-wolf, and Lilly Marin, a “panafish” (part panda, part fish). Putting their logic skills to the test, Sophia and Mark face down a deadly scavenger hunt, the fearsome water monster Alexar, and a pair of mysterious beings known simply as “the Writers.” If Sophia and Mark fail their tests, they could be stuck in another dimension forever. Almation is a richly drawn world, and Penn delivers colorful, evocative descriptions and lovably weird characters. The inventive, Zoombinis–style logic puzzles are what make this story truly remarkable; young readers will have great fun trying to solve them along with Sophia and Mark. That said, the characters’ dialogue can be clunky and overly formal (“We surely must press that plate,” says Mark), which doesn’t ring true to the way that modern-day children speak. Sophia and Mark’s found friendships are touching, but other emotional moments feel rushed and inauthentic, as when a character turns from evil to good in the blink of an eye. The kids’ harrowing near-death encounters are also brief and hurried, which lowers the overall stakes. Pahek’s detailed, black-and-white images open each chapter and bring Almation’s inhabitants to life.
Colorful characters and puzzles make this a fantasy world worth getting lost in, despite some awkward dialogue and inconsistent pacing.