In young adult novels for students grades 4-8, parents are better left dead. Why? Because alive, parents have too much power and influence; they tend to manage outcomes. What young adult enjoys a novel stuck inside that much reality?
Consider Harry Potter. His parents died via Voldemort’s wand, inspiring a seven novel pursuit for justice.
And Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games”. Her father died at the hands of a powerful government, rendering her mother unfit to parent.
Award-winning novelist Cynthia Voigt’s young characters are all fighters and have been for decades. As a young reader, I consumed her Tillerman books. In my twenties, I processed The Kingdom series as well as “David and Jonathan”, “When She Hollers”, “The Callender Papers”, “Tree by Leaf”, “The Vandemark Mummy”, “Tell Me if the Lovers are Losers”.
When I taught auto safety to insurance consumers, I read paragraphs aloud from “Izzy Willy Nilly”. And “On Fortunes Wheel” was one of three books I dissected for my Master’s Thesis examining strength of character.
Voigt’s smart literature may not sit well with those who prefer scene after scene of mindless adventuring. However, thoughtful readers seeking characters who make their own decisions-- and their own mistakes-- appreciate her character-driven storytelling.
Maximilian Starling, protagonist and hero of “Mister Max, The Book of Lost Things” does not disappoint such readers. His theatrical parents disappear when an unscrupulous Maharajah from India strokes their egos, enticing them onto a phantom ship. How does Max manage? Very well, thank you!
Max begins the novel as a seen but not heard child: “Neither of (his parents) looked at Max, who had also stopped eating but did not speak. He knew better than to interrupt the drama they were creating.”
He transforms himself into a force to be reckoned with: “Max felt jittery, in his stomach, and it might have been fear, but it might also have been excitement. Because he suddenly realized that he was going to do it—live in his own house, independent, on his own.”
How many youth long to prove themselves? Voigt allows her protagonists the freedom to explore; to figure things out for themselves. Max is a twelve-year-old living the dream, testing his capabilities, trusting his instincts.
Max the Solutioneer not only creates a job for himself, but sensibly discriminates between friend and foe. He is perceptive, discerning the truth of things by observing people. He is analytic, allowing a bright female peer named Pia to rattle off questions that stimulate his thinking.
Max exhibits a subtle sense of humor, particularly when impersonating adult figures: a detective; a substitute in a local school; a plump scullery maid named Martha. (Every Baroness Barthold maid is forced to adopt the name Martha.)
Max’s qualities are endearing. Though he feels, “… as if a wagon had whammed into him. A wagon loaded with heavy stones, a wagon pulled by huge-hooved Clydesdale horses thundering along so fast they didn't even swerve for the boy on a bicycle as they whammed into him…” Max does not give up.
For most of us, life is rollicking as a ship at sea. Some days we feel as if we are riding the top of a wave. But often we float adrift, overwhelmed by what seem insurmountable odds. In such moments, a character such as Max becomes the perfect travel companion, a resourceful and positive friend to admire and even emulate.
Crafting “Mister Max” with the whimsy of an Edward Eager, the magic of Betty MacDonald’s "Mrs. Piggle Wiggle" and the creative twists of fantasy writer Eva Ibbotson, Voigt continues to keep it real.
Max’s story expands like a dense cloud in the wind. Beginning with Max’s “want”, the tale evolves organically, refreshing readers even as it nourishes their human potential.
What a pleasure it is to discover that Cynthia Voigt-- now a grandmother-- still has what it takes to generate fresh subject matter for contemporary young adults.
“Mister Max, The Book of Lost Things” will be released to the public September 10, 2013, by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House Publishers. Two additional books are planned in the Mister Max series. RandomHouseKids.com promises access to a Mister Max Series Site in the very near future.