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Local Writers for Tweens Tackle Racism and 2012 

State of the Arts

Here at Seven Days, our readership is adult, which means the books we review generally are, too. But, as any grown-up who’s ever been ensnared by the Harry Potter series or a dogeared copy of Anne of Green Gables knows, good fiction for kids knows no age limit.

This week, as part of the Parenting Issue, we review two recent books by local authors that aim for what publishers call the “middle-grade” market (ages 8 to 12). But both are the kind of books parents may just find themselves reading on the sly — which means, of course, they’re also great read-aloud bets.

Welcome to the Jungle

Remember how it felt to open a Tintin book and get swept into an exotic adventure? Imagine one of Hergé’s classics without the graphic aspect (including those creepy racial caricatures). Now imagine an Indiana Jones movie that features carefully researched, nonpreachy lessons on ancient cultures alongside the action hijinks, and you’re starting to get the idea of Middleworld, a novel from Norwich authors J & P Voelkel.

Middleworld’s hero is a 14-year-old Bostonian named Max Murphy, whose parents are archaeologists specializing in the ancient Maya. Max is more interested in the kind of intellectual stimulation that can be attained by manipulating a joystick. But he has to change his sedentary ways when a series of unfortunate events lands him in the fictional Central American nation of San Xavier — and his parents, supposedly on a dig there, vanish without a trace.

Max’s spoiled-American-kid attitude may wear on the reader in the novel’s early pages. But once he finds himself lost in the rainforest with a tart-tongued modern Maya girl named Lola and her two trained monkeys, things pick right up. Soon a supernatural element enters the story, and Max and Lola have to set about saving the world.

The novel’s action is fast-paced enough to appeal to the target demo, while adults will like the authors’ smart treatment of the culture-clash theme — and their comic acumen. Take the book’s primer on the 12 Maya lords of death, who have names such as Demon of Pus, Blood Gatherer and Scab Stripper. “Sounds like the lineup for a heavy metal festival,” notes Max.

Best of all, the Voelkels’ novel kicks off a fantasy trilogy in which the hero does not — so far, anyway — appear to be a Potteresque Chosen One. He’s just a regular kid trying to grow up enough to do the right thing.

Middleworld was first published in 2007 (see sidebar), but it’s getting more attention this time around. Look for the authors on the “Today” show later this month — Al Roker just chose the novel for his Book Club for Kids.

Bad Old Days

Plattsburgh author Bonnie Shimko’s third novel for tweens and teens, The Private Thoughts of Amelia E. Rye, would make a great birthday present. It has a prestigious publisher, a genteel cover and one of those “serious” premises that tend to appeal more to parents than to kids: interracial friendship in a “flea-size” upstate New York town in the 1960s.

You need read only the first chapter, though, to discover that Amelia is less high-toned and more fun than its exterior suggests. Or perhaps only the title of that first chapter: “My mother tried to kill me before I was born. Even then I disappointed her.”

When we meet Amelia, her lot in life appears Dickensian: Her late-in-life mom barely tolerates her; her dad has absconded with the “town hussy”; and her older siblings reside in a factory town, an asylum and a state prison, respectively. Then, into her life skips Fancy Nelson, the first African American kid in school, a little dynamo who sweetly threatens to “pulverize everybody” who gives her trouble. Amelia couldn’t make a better friend.

The novel offers readers of all ages a dose of Roald Dahl-style twisted humor and the satisfactions of a fairy tale: Decent, smart, bold characters soundly trounce mean, cowardly ones. By the end, though, Amelia has become a more nuanced story, with shades of gray older readers will appreciate. Maybe you can please kids and librarians at the same time.

Author Spotlight: Maya Mavens

When someone buys a copy of Middleworld at the Norwich Bookstore and wants it signed, owner Penny McConnel often calls up the authors, who live right down the street. “We offer a very personal signing service,” says Pamela Craik Voelkel with a chuckle.

Jon Voelkel and Pamela Craik Voelkel — who go by the byline “J & P Voelkel” — have entertained countless Vermont middle schoolers with a live presentation tied to their novel, which culminates in a surprise visit from a “Maya king.” (It’s actually a teacher wearing a costume created by the couple’s niece, with a towering headdress.) Now, the book they’ve been quietly promoting since 2007 — with help from Vermont booksellers and librarians, notes Pamela — has scored them an appearance on the “Today” show.

The coauthors have put down firm roots in Norwich, where they’ve been raising their three kids — now 17, 13 and 7 — for the past seven years. But their own origins, like the action of their book, are far-flung. Pamela is a UK native, while Jon is an American whose missionary parents raised him in South and Central America. They met while working at a London advertising agency and later founded their own, Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel Ltd.

After 15 years in London, the couple decided to settle down “halfway between our two families,” says Pamela. (Jon has relatives in Arizona.) In Vermont, Jon was “supposed to be writing a book on marketing, but it was just too boring,” he recalls. “I used to tell bedtime stories to the kids every night. My son had a favorite story about a monkey girl, and I thought, That would be such a great book.”

Middleworld was born from Jon’s memories of “things I went through when I was a kid, dragged by my parents through the jungle,” says the author, who confesses to having been, like protagonist Max Murphy, a less-than-ideal adventure traveler.

“He wrote the bones of it,” Pamela recalls, “and it was like a James Bond story or something — all guns and car chases. There were no female characters!” That changed when she started reworking the manuscript. Now, says Pamela, their collaboration means that “we talk about the plot endlessly between the two of us, and I do most of the writing.”

The couple also became Maya aficionados: “The more we researched the Maya, the more fascinated we got with them,” Jon explains. Soon they were taking their own children down to Central America, and Jon was studying up on Maya glyphs, which he calls “almost a visual language.” He replicated some in the novel’s black-and-white illustrations.

Middleworld was first published in 2007 by Smith & Sons, an imprint of Manchester, N.H.-based theater publisher Smith and Kraus. “It was their son who read the manuscript and told them they should publish it,” Pamela remembers. The novel sold 10,000 copies in hardcover, says Jon, but the publisher “didn’t have resources to take it further.”

An agent contacted the Voelkels, and that connection led to the publication of a revised paperback edition of Middleworld last April by Egmont USA. The couple just finished an East Coast tour, hitting destinations such as New Orleans, D.C. and Cape Cod, and will embark on another circuit in September. This summer they’ll visit camp kids at Vergennes’ Basin Harbor Club at an event coordinated by Shelburne’s Flying Pig Bookstore.

The second Jaguar Stones book is finished and should appear by the end of the year, says Pamela. The books have something of a time hook: Marketing materials for Middleworld tout its “tie-in to the 2012 phenomenon.”

Indeed, ancient Maya culture is all over modern pop culture these days — if not for the right reasons. When the couple give their school presentation, says Jon Voelkel, “one of the No. 1 questions we get” is whether the world really has a 2012 expiration date. “We found that a lot of children are really worried about it,” says Pamela.

While the approaching end of a 400-year baktun — or Maya calendar cycle — does figure in the novel, the couple are adamant on the point that “the Maya had no expectation that the calendar would end in 2012,” says Jon. “A lot of this is due to a mistake that archaeologists made about 50 years ago.” He notes that the Maya had “no tradition of a cataclysmic ending of the world” and believed in “the cyclical nature of time, going on in perpetuity.”

The Voelkels seem to have succeeded in their efforts to get kids to see the Maya as innovators rather than doomsayers. Some young fans “email us really complicated Maya questions,” says Jon. “They just become absolutely passionate about the Maya.”

As for the couple’s own children, “we’ve taken them to 30 different Maya sites,” says Pamela. The Voelkel kids have kayaked underground rivers and tracked howler monkeys in the rainforest — as the couple related recently in an installment of AOL Travel’s “You Took Your Children Where?”

“We get them to eat all sorts of interesting things,” says Jon, whose own official bio asserts that he “survived monkey stew” as a child.

Are the Voelkel kids better travelers than Max Murphy, a couch potato who can barely force himself to swallow a tamale? Their early excursions have certainly “encouraged them to be more adventurous,” says Pamela.

Middleworld could have that effect on its young readers, too.

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About The Author

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Bio:
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.

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