Although I write about YA books almost exclusively in this column, I do, extremely occasionally—the last time was in 2011, for David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary—branch out. As I’m a huge sucker for stories about boarding schools for prodigies—geniuses, criminals, musicians, you name it—I’m making one of my rare exceptions for M. M. Vaughan’s middle-grade debut.
According to The Ability, 12-year-olds have a special gift: They can use 100% of their brain, which allows for accelerated learning and, in some very special cases, abilities like telekinesis and telepathy. During World War II, the British government trained a few select children in an attempt to harness that power, but it ended in disaster and death. Now, decades later, a woman is using her twin sons to attack all of the survivors of that terrible night...and the only way she can be stopped is by rebooting the project.
Roald Dahl is clearly an influence*—in the child-hating adults, Vaughan showcases a Dahl-esque flair for the grotesque—and the descriptions of the secret underground school (not to mention the superpowers!) will have younger readers longing to enroll. While it’s an entertaining read, though, it never moves out of the realm of competent**. She gets the exposition out of the way quickly, but somewhat clumsily, and the supporting characters are each defined by a single characteristic: the tomboy, the girly-girl, the thug, the brain.
NUTSHELL: It feels as if the author was shooting for Harry Potter territory, and I’ll definitely be adding it to my list of readalikes, but...meh.
However! If you’d like a middle-grade read about a secret school—well, in this case it’s a society—for talented kids, may I recommend The Mysterious Benedict Society? That series I ADORE. The characters are more fully realized, the settings are supercool, the title character is not defined by his narcolepsy, the plotting is BANANAS, the puzzles are smart and the bad guys are supercreepy. Oh! And the illustrations are fantastic as well!
If you’d like a recent YA read about a secret school for talented teens, swing by your local library and pick up Kirsten Miller’s How to Lead a Life of Crime. It’s WAY dark and occasionally disturbing, but, like Benedict, it’s got a great setting that’s peopled with complex characters, and the plot has lots of twists and turns and surprises. Highly recommended.
*I wasn’t at all surprised to see his name invoked in the author bio.
**Which, to be fair, puts it several rungs above plenty of other books, so that’s not quite as damning-with-faint-praise a statement as it sounds.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.