This has been our number one hit in the kid’s section at my book store for weeks and weeks now. And it’s had no staff assistance; I think it’s selling mostly on cover art and concept alone. So finally I thought I should take a look and see what all the fuss was about.
I had low expectations (because I’m snotty like that sometimes), but I did enjoy it – more than I thought I would. It’s fun and clever, though quite dark. The plot is well done and capably told. It’s certainly interesting and has some decent characters. A very solid book. It didn’t blow me out of the water, but I can see why it’s so popular. One thing I did notice, is it’s got a lot of influences, or reference points. As a Stephenie Meyer quote on the cover points out “It’s the oddest/sweetest mix of Little House on the Prairie and X-Men…” She’s quite right: and I’m going to give you a summary of the book using the various references I found (I’m sure there are more). Be warned: there will be spoilers!! And also realize that this isn’t meant to be a criticism – I think you could do the same for many books… pick them apart and look at where the author might have got their ideas (enough people have done it for Harry Potter, that’s for sure).
Anne of Green Gables: Not sure if Forester has read this Canadian classic, but her main character Piper McCloud is young Anne all over. She talks and talks and talks of nonsense, completely annoying/baffling those around her. She lives on a farm with an old couple (her parents rather than an adopted family of a spinster and her bachelor brother) who are quite reserved and traditional. Oh, and there’s some very meddlesome neighbours.
Sarah, Plain and Tall/Little House/any other Newbery-winner -type-book about a young girl on a farm (there are dozens): The narrow-minded folk in the town; the spark and heart of Piper; the gruff love of her family – all very much these rural heartwarming books.
The Sheep Pig/Babe: A wife who talks a lot, and a very silent husband. Again – very Anne of Green Gables also.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Some of the weirdness is a little reminiscent; but mostly, Piper learns to fly by throwing herself at the ground. Just like Arthur and his attempts to fly by missing the ground.
Catch-22: After she flies in front of the whole town and causes and international stir, Piper is picked up by the I.N.S.A.N.E. agency (surely another acronym might have inspired some trust?) by Agent A. Agent whose last name just happened to be Agent. Very Major Major Major Major.
Series of Unfortunate Events/anything by Roald Dahl: in tone, this book is very much going for the tongue-in-cheek style of these comedies and others in this genre. Plus the adults are wicked and the children unfortunate in their luck.
X-Men: Piper gets hauled off to a secret school for children with special talents (I.N.S.A.N.E.). They include people who can manipulate the weather; shoot electricity out of their hands; do telekinesis; out-think anyone; etc. The trick is, here they are encouraged not to use their powers.
101 Dalmatians/Holes/Narnia/Wizard of Oz: The main villan, Dr Letitia Hellion (again, they should have been able to tell this by her name) is very much like the evil female villan in all of these books. She’s cruel to animals (Cruella); has a funny thing with lipstick (the Warden of Camp Green Lake); seduces children to her side (the Witch from Narnia); and has an unexpected weak spot and a flying thing (Wicked Witch of the West). I’m sure there’s another half-dozen evil villainesses that could also be cited.
Princess Bride: An obscure one, I know. But the I.N.S.A.N.E. headquarters is divided into 14 floors; on each is a different group of animal/plant species. As Piper first travelled through on an elevator, all I could think of was the Princess Bride scene (omitted from the movie) of Inigo and Fezzik travelling through room after room of predatory animals in the Zoo. Although here the animals are being tortured and experimented on to remove their specialness.
The Odd Couple: When Piper finally teams up with super-brain Conrad to stop Dr. Hellion, it is very odd couple. He’s a hard-hearted genius (we think), and she’s a soft-hearted yokel. A very unlikely pair, though only Conrad seems to notice.
Disney: Most anything, really. In particular, I’m thinking of the cricket that plays a fairly major role. While he doesn’t talk like Jiminy, he does sing opera (that was delightfully unexpected).
James Bond: A crazy villain with a super-fortress in Antarctica (I think?). It’s very spy and totally Bond.
Harry Potter: A school for
wizar– no- for kids with special powers. But then, what isn’t Harry Potter in this post-Harry Potter world? Even stuff published earlier is Harry Potter retroactively, it seems.
The Invisible Man: There’s an invisible man. Don’t get it confused with Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison like I did; they are very different beasts. But while we’re on the topic, I highly recommend Memoirs of an Invisible Man by H. F. Saint. It was an amazing book, and much much better than the crappy Chevy Chase movie they made.
One Flew Over the Coo-Coo’s Nest: Hellion threatens to give Conrad a lobotomy, and the creepy control she has over the facility and the children is very Nurse Ratchett. She subdues people just like patients from this book/movie. And the kids behave with kind of the same desire for wild abandon (spurned on by Piper/Jack Nicholson) as the inmates. It’s actually surprisingly similar to One Flew Over the Coo-Coo’s Nest.
1984/Brave New World/Clockwork Orange: In that characters are brainwashed to forget who they are and what’s important to them. Here it’s a combination of drugs and physical torture. Piper wasn’t quite saying that 2+2=5 after her treatment, but she certainly lost herself (for a bit).
Star Trek: The youngest of the children heals Piper by placing his hands on her – there’s a blinding white light as it takes effect. I’m absolutely certain I saw this on a STNG episode once.
Any Heist Movie/Book Anywhere: There’s a couple of attempted and failed heists in this book, as well as the final revolt. In addition to being quite spy-y, it’s also quite heist-y.
Hunger Games: Sort of, in that there’s a revolt. I’m actually grasping because I didn’t pin down as many references towards the end. It tied up quite cleverly, though the very end was a bit sickenly tidy.
Mysterious Benedict Society: Unusual children that manage to overturn a big evil using their unusual powers. They end up being a fantastic team and prizing their unusualness. And because this will have a sequel, just like Benedict.
These are just the ones I caught – and most probably don’t really apply… Forester may never have read/seen many of these things. Or maybe she did. But you can tell by the quantity and quality of most of the references (some of my very favourite things, ever), that even if this isn’t an original book, it’s made up of some great elements combined in an unusual mosaic.