Book reviews: Different approaches to historical fiction for middle grade readers

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The weather is getting colder and the days are getting shorter. Fall is telling us it's time to curl up with a good book.

We might even want a book that transports us to another place and time. Two new historical fiction books for middle grade readers do just that by drawing us into the lives of skilled performers at the turn of the 20th century.

■ "Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things" is the first book in a trilogy by Cynthia Voigt (Alfred A. Knopf, $16.99, ages 8-12). It takes us to a seaside British town around 1900.

Twelve-year-old Maximilian Starling has grown up in the theater. His parents own and run the city's theater company and act as its star performers.

Max himself has acted as a stagehand and supporting actor in their productions for years. His parents are so theatrical that even simple conversations are filled with dramatic pauses and gestures -- and Max knows how to play his part.

But sometimes it seems as if his parents become so wrapped up in their own personal dramas that they forget about Max.

Punctuated by detailed drawings by Iacopo Bruno, Max's story begins when his parents receive a mysterious invitation from the Maharajah of Kashmir to join him at his palace. He wants them to create a theater company for him.

The family quickly makes arrangements to leave but, because of a series of unfortunate events, Max is left behind. Although Max's Grammie lives next door and cares for him in his parent's absence, Max is also left wondering.

Did his parents simply forget him? Did they leave him on purpose? Or is something more sinister at work?

Cryptic and slightly alarming messages arrive from his parents. Max must figure out how to play his greatest part yet, that of detective and "Solutioneer."

■ "Bluffton" by Matt Phelan (Candlewick Press, $22.99, ages 9-12) is a graphic novel that takes us to a sleepy beach town on Lake Michigan. In softly rendered watercolor, Mr. Phelan brings to life three magical summers at the real-life Actors' Colony at Bluffton.

Based on true events, this story is populated by vaudeville legends of all sorts, including the famous Buster Keaton.

Our Muskegonite protagonist, Henry Harrison, describes life in Muskegon, Mich., as "Quiet. Ordinary." But this all changes in the summer of 1908 when the vaudevillians arrive in town.

For these summer months, Henry sees the loud and extraordinary everywhere. There are zebras grazing, elephants on parade, visits by Harry Houdini, and acrobats on the lawn.

Henry yearns to be part of this fascinating life. He befriends the visiting children, including Buster, who are often performers themselves.

They play baseball, craft elaborate practical jokes, fish and do a lot of nothing. Henry begs Buster to teach him the tricks of the trade; strangely, Buster always changes the subject.

Henry looks forward to the vaudevillians' return each summer. In their absence, life continues quietly in Muskegon.

Henry helps at his father's store, works to perfect his juggling act, tolerates school, and waits. Life begins to seem unfair and he begrudges Buster his exciting life.

Why does Buster get to perform on stage, learn to perform stunts, and travel the world while Henry is stuck in Michigan and will probably work in his father's store forever? How can Henry turn his own life into one of adventure and wonder?

Each book invokes the spirit of the adventurous and the theatrical. Max uses his parents' acting wardrobe to play different parts as he solves problems around town as a Solutioneer. Readers experience Henry's wonder through scenes of performers tumbling, elephants lumbering, and flashbacks to vaudeville performances.

This is where the similarities end. "Bluffton" is a compelling, well-paced coming-of-age story. "Mister Max" is a rather anticlimactic, meandering detective story.

Readers witness Henry's growing self-awareness but Max seems to remain static, stuck in the spot where his parents mysteriously left him. Henry is relatable while Max seems detached and distant from both the reader and other characters, including his lost parents.

Mr. Phelan deftly integrates the historic setting of the book to give a feel for the time and place of the Actors' Colony. This setting is integral to the development of the story (even beyond the factual aspects), from Henry's fear of working in his father's store to the quietness of life in a small beach town. Historical details about everyday life from this time period are easily absorbed.

Conversely, the historical setting in "Mister Max" feels almost like an afterthought. Few historical details are included, as if Max could be any other boy in any other time or place. This may make this book more appealing to young readers who do not gravitate toward historical fiction but ultimately weakens the book's overall impact.

"Bluffton" is a delightful read for graphic novel enthusiasts, historical fiction lovers and anyone who likes a good story.

"Mister Max" will appeal to those who enjoy mysteries, although it may fail to engage some readers.

Both books will transport readers to another time and place, although in very different ways.

Amy Tooley is children's and teen librarian at the Lawrenceville branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

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