I love Wendy Mass. Her books always combine a great concept with solid characters that readers really connect with. I could review any of her books enthusiastically, but since I re-read this one recently, and it fits under one of my favourite sub-categories of middle grade- MG novels set in NYC- I thought I’d focus on this gem.
Twelve year old Jeremy Fink lives with his mom in NYC next door to his best friend in the whole world, Lizzie. Jeremy and Lizzie are about as different as night and day. Where Lizzie is brazen, Jeremy is tentative. Lizzie is outspoken, and Jeremy is polite. Yet they have been best friends for ages, and no amount of changing hormones is going to change that anytime soon.* Just before his 13th birthday, Jeremy receives a mysterious box and a letter. The box promises to contain the meaning of life and appears to be from Jeremy’s father, who died a number of years ago. Despite many ingenious attempts to open the box, Jeremy and Lizzie discover that it will only be opened by the original set of keys. And so begins a journey across New York in which Jeremy and Lizzie hope to find not only the keys, but the meaning of life.
As the saying goes, this book is all about the journey, not the destination, and though the contents of the box are eventually revealed, whether or not they contain the meaning of life is up to the reader to decide. The point is that Jeremy’s quest forces him to venture beyond his neighbourhood, take risks, meet new people, and stretch his mind. Through an odd sequence of events Lizzie and Jeremy find themselves making deliveries for a retiring pawn shop owner. Naturally each of the recipients has their own two cents on just what IS the meaning of life. Despite incredible coincidences, the plot develops naturally and Mass provides enough food for thought that the story never felt contrived, as it may have in the hands of a less-skilled writer.
More than anything it is the details that make Wendy Mass’ stories come to life. In a few short paragraphs I feel like I know her characters. Take Jeremy for example. Here is a kid who eats peanut butter three times a day, collects mutant candy, and passes notes back and forth to his best friend through a hole in the wall that connects their two bedrooms. Mass knows just when to spice up her fast-paced narratives with little details like this that set her books apart from the crowd. In my experience, kids love her like they love Judy Blume, which is just about the highest compliment one can give to a middle grade writer.
When it comes to cities that are near and dear to my heart, let’s just say I prefer autumn in New York to springtime in Paris. Books in New York (for adults and kids) always make it onto my reading list. Some of my middle grade favourites include classics such as Stuart Little, A Cricket in Times Square, the All-of-a- Kind Family, Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays (a kind of pre-cursor to my beloved Penderwicks books) and of course From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. But don’t forget these other gems: Lois Lowry’s The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline, which does for the Museum of Natural History what Mixed Up Files does for the Met; speculative survival story The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer, and of course Rebecca Stead’s Newbery award-winning When You Reach Me. There are also a number of fantasy novels, including The Night Tourist and The Twilight Prisoner by Katherine Marsh and Adam Gopnik’s throw-back to classic fantasy Steps Across the Water. I know I am forgetting many more- I haven’t even mentioned any picture books let alone YA- but these are the ones that immediately come to mind.
If you’re not familiar with Wendy Mass, do yourself a favour and check out her books. And if you heart New York like I do, start with this one. Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life is available in paperback from Little , Brown Books for Young Readers.
*Sorry, kids. There is no tween romance here.