There are a lot of elements within Isabel Hoving's book The Dream Merchant that are very appealing. Twelve year old Josh Cope is a collector and occasional small time thief (very small time) and has a thing for gadgets. When he gets a phone call in the middle of the night and subsequently ends up being recruited by an international business determined to sell objects across time, Josh finds himself with access to a lot of very cool gadgets. The book picks up a bit of a 007 atmosphere quite quickly (and I mean that as a compliment) and then as Josh and his friends go traveling in dreamtime it begins to seem a bit like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—or maybe even Harry Potter. I don't want to suggest that Hoving is any kind of a copycat author (nothing could be further from the truth), but Dream Merchant does contain an atmosphere that will be recognizable to fans of several genres. Basically, if you like your fantasy in a world that is just a little different from our own and you like your adventure of a two-fisted sort (written for the young adult set though), then you will fall madly in love with this amazing and wholly original book.
Josh joins "Gippart" because it promises him money and adventure, something that is hard to resist for any kid. He and his friends quickly find out though that Josh was no ordinary recruit for the company, in fact there seem to be a lot of things about Josh (and also, surprisingly, his friend Baz) that neither one of them knew to expect. But along with making personal discoveries and wandering through the dream worlds it soon becomes clear that the boys are part of some very dangerous agendas. They have unscrupulous enemies, very scary enemies in fact, and if they don't figure out very quickly what they are looking for and why the company wants them so badly to find it then they might just not survive their employment. And here's the thing—that's not even the most amazing part of this book. For that you will need to read it and meet Jericho, who will certainly rock your whole definition of reality.
I give Isabel Hoving a lot of points for writing a brave book with The Dream Merchant. Every part of this story in fearless, and it gives the readers a delicious notion that literally anything could happen. Hoving brings her audience out on a ledge along with Josh, Baz and their fellow recruit, Teresa, and then dares you to stay right there along with them. The plot is not going to give you a break—it is never going to give you a break—and you will just have to hang in there with these kids and puzzle everything out along with them. This is a modern take on an old fashioned adventure a very modern take—that insists that readers give themselves up to the miracle that is the story. I could not have dreamed this book up, no way. How cool for a lot of 12-year-olds, that Isabel Hoving is the kind of writer who can.
I just know that I am not going to do this wonderful book justice with this review. It's such an original book; such a unique look into one young girl's life that I don't know what words can best describe it. Ostensibly, it deals with autism and how Lucy makes friend with her young autistic neighbor, Matthew. But that is nothing—practically nothing—as a description of the book. Honestly, The Boy Who Ate the Stars is simply one of the most amazing and precious stories that I have read in a long time. And it certainly belongs on the shelf of any inquisitive and introspective young adult.
Twelve-year old Lucy is eager to learn everything about her neighbors in her new apartment building. Maria and Matthew present some surprises however, as four-year Matthew lives in his own world and interacts with the people around him on terms that are both unfamiliar and exhilarating to Lucy and her friend Theo. The two friends are determined to meet and understand Matthew as completely as possible on his level, and the way in which Matthew transforms their lives is wonderful to read about.
There are a lot of wonderful supporting characters in Boy, from Matthew's caregiver, Maougo (who only speaks Russian) to Theo's grandfather Balthazar and Maria, who sees her son almost as a visitor from another planet and seeks to reach him in a language that neither of them have yet discovered. The whole book is about communicating, about hearing what the other person is saying, even if their words are unknown or unclear. Even Lucy's plans for the dog Francois, who belongs to friends of her parents, involve finding a way to convince him that being a dog is better than being someone's fashion accessory (as in carried around in purses ala Paris Hilton). Lucy also finds herself listening to her parents on a different level than before she knew Matthew and finding within herself some new depths that she never before knew were there.
The Boy Who Ate Stars is a small book—just barely over 100 pages—but it packs an amazing amount of story and heart. It's not saccharine or sickeningly sweet; it's not melodramatic or overly done. It's just a brilliantly written look at how to recognize and embrace the differences within each other. I loved this book. Absolutely loved it. It just needs readers to open its cover and give it a chance; it's the kind of book that captures you in an instant, with Lucy's very first words:
It all began with us moving to 11 Rue Merlin. Our apartment's on the fourth floor, left-hand side. It was September, I was twelve and I didn't know anybody. But I promised myself something: I was going to get to know all my neighbors.
By the book's end Lucy has a whole new group of friends and a new way of seeing the world. And readers are left with a lingering impression of a girl who consciously set out to make her world a richer place and then went about doing just that. We all could learn a bit from Lucy, starting with how to become better at this whole complicated thing called living.
Every so often I pick up a book and I know within a page or two that I am dealing with a book that is perfect for either boys or girls. It doesn't mean that both sexes won't enjoy it, but it is really perfect for one over the other. That is exactly the way I felt when I started reading Alan Silberberg's Pond Scum. Right now, I swear, there are ten year old boys all over America whining that there is nothing to read. This is the book for them, people—this is the book that each and every one of them will eat up in an instant.
Pond Scum is initially a story with two very different plot lines. First there is the story of Oliver and his family, in search of a new house and a new start. Oliver is one of those kids who isn't quite sure where he fits or how he fits. Fortunately, his mother ends up buying a house that is overrun by a bunch of small animals and insects a group who considers the territory to be their own. This is the second plot line, the nonhuman plot line, and it is where much hilarity ensues. Of course Oliver and his family are oblivious to the dynamics of this other world, but soon enough they have no choice about becoming involved. Oliver finds something in the attic of his new house, something strange, and suddenly he finds himself transformed into something else. And before you know it, Oliver is a valuable component to the battle over the pond, and an important friend to creatures he never before even gave a second thought.
Okay, we're talking about a book where a boy becomes a bug. It's not some great big entry into the canon of western literature, but the last time I checked the only people who thought kids should be exposed to Shakespeare were adults. (A large portion of my life was stolen from me in the 9th grade studying Romeo and Juliet—it was wasted time people—100% wasted time!) Pond Scum is the perfect kind of book for the younger set—it's funny and exciting and Oliver has to be brave and resourceful. It's just a very fun book to read, and that's what far too many boys struggle to find. This is a book that will make them laugh, and will certainly keep them engaged until the very end.
It's what they want and it's both smart and original. What more could a parent ask for, and why in the world wouldn't you make sure that it was in the hands of every kid who so desperately needed it?
The Dream Merchant
The Boy Who Ate Stars.
Kochka, Translated by Sarah Adams.
Simon & Schuster. 2006.
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