Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Tuesday, August 6, 2013: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things


Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers: Mister Max by Cynthia Voigt

Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers: Mister Max by Cynthia Voigt

Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers: Mister Max by Cynthia Voigt

Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers: Mister Max by Cynthia Voigt

Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things

by Cynthia Voigt, illus. by Iacopo Bruno

Even when Max Starling's parents are home, they pay him little heed, so caught up are they in their theater and theatrics. No wonder Max has grown into the charmingly resourceful, independent and observant 12-year-old he is.

When his parents accept an invitation from the Maharajah of Kashmir to create a theater company for him, they plan to take Max with them. But when he arrives at the dock to meet them, and discovers they've boarded a ship that departed early--without him--readers believe he's a boy who can survive on his own (with a little help from Grammie). Max's chief concern is that the boat his parents supposedly boarded, the Flower of Kashmir, does not exist, according to the harbormaster. He's not sure where they're bound, nor can he make any sense of a cryptic note his parents left with a clerk. That's just one--albeit the largest--of the mysteries Max explores and attempts to solve in this first of a planned trilogy from Newbery Medalist and Edgar winner Cynthia Voigt (the Tillerman Cycle; The Callender Papers).

Like his parents, Max is a master of disguises--luckily, for he must hide the fact that his parents have gone missing so that he can stay put. Grammie, his maternal grandmother, lives next door and cooks him supper. But given her modest salary as a librarian, Max must find a way to support himself. He stumbles into a vocation when he discovers a toddler wandering in the park, and attempts to unite the boy with his mother--without asking a lot of questions of the people nearby. "He didn't want anyone noticing him, wondering about him, looking for explanations," Max thinks to himself. "He hadn't yet figured out what lies he could safely tell; he just knew what truths he had to keep hidden." Max finds the boy's mother, who is grateful to have found her boy, Angel, and handsomely rewards Max. He begins to think of himself as "Mister Max, returner of runaway children."

Like Dickens, Voigt gracefully employs a third-person narrative that allows her to move freely among her characters' perspectives. Her choice of setting--an era when people traveled by ship and communicated by letter--permits a formality of language and manner that suits young Mister Max. Word of mouth leads to the hero's next two jobs: finding a lost golden retriever (called Princess Jonquilletta of the Windy Isles) owned by a wealthy child named Clarissa, and a lost heirloom spoon belonging to the Baroness Barthold. In both cases, there is more than at first meets the eye. Clarissa believes a jealous classmate may have stolen the purebred. Max poses as a substitute teacher to find out more, which leads to a chance meeting with Pia, a friendless, intelligent girl, who confides that the pets tied up at the fence at school are "just a contest they have, to be the one with a pet everybody else wishes they had." This information poses a larger moral question for Mister Max: Should he return the dog to its owner?

Max's knowledge of theater overall and of Shakespeare in particular often leads to the solutions he seeks for the dilemmas he's hired to fix. As Max says, "You can't know a lot of plays well, some of them written by William Shakespeare, without getting a good understanding of how and why people do what they do." Voigt's twist is that Max often lands on a resolution that pleases him as much as his clients--which is why he comes up with the job title "Solutioneer."

With humor and wit, Voigt plays with the idea of what it means to be lost. Princess Jonquilletta of the Windy Isles is not lost; the dog ran away. So how can Max do right by the dog but also satisfy his client? And Max discovers there's a far greater loss for the Baroness than the family spoon: when she accused an employee of stealing it, the Baroness also came between her grand-nephew and the love of his life. He did not stand up for his beloved, and lost her--a loss more precious than any spoon. He then flees, and the Baroness loses him, too.

Voigt's supporting cast will captivate readers nearly as much as Max does. Grammie knows just when to step back and give Max room, but also when to step in and be the adult. She also finds Max a tutor, whom the boy recruits as a boarder, and who becomes another trusted confidant for Max. His art teacher, Joachim, comes across as crotchety, but also serves as a guiding force for Max. By book's end, the mystery of his parents' whereabouts is not fully concluded, but readers will be confident that Max--with the help of his chosen group of guardians--will be quite alright. --Jennifer M. Brown

Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16.99, hardcover, 384p., ages 8-12, 9780307976819

Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers: Mister Max by Cynthia Voigt


Cynthia Voigt: No Right Answers, Only Good Questions

photo: Michael Lionstar

Cynthia Voigt won the 1983 Newbery Medal for Dicey's Song and a Newbery Honor for A Solitary Blue. Homecoming was a National Book Award Finalist. All three are part of the Tillerman Cycle. Voigt was awarded the Margaret A. Edwards Award in 1995 for the body of her work, and an Edgar Award for The Callender Papers. Her new book is Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things, the first in a planned trilogy. She lives in Maine.

What were the seeds of the idea for Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things?

"Seeds," plural, is key. Seed #1 is my first grandchild, Max. I called him Mister Max; it fits the ear. As soon as I named him Mister Max, a title came to me: Mister Max and His Flying Grandmothers. He has two local grandmothers who see a lot of him. But I couldn't think of a story to go with that title. Then, it's always particularly hard for me to write a mystery-style story, because I have trouble with plotting.

That's surprising. After all, you won an Edgar Award for The Callender Papers.

I'm not my most critical reader, in the sense of illuminating. I sense a weakness, and that's what I try to address. I sometimes read and sometimes enjoy books by Alexander McCall Smith, and I admire that he has characters that go from book to book and change from book to book. Since McCall Smith is what I consider a not impaired plotter, I looked to him. I had an ambition, and I had a name.

It came to me that Mister Max could be like a spy. I'm a fan of Zorro and The Scarlet Pimpernel. I came up with the question of Mister Max as a guy who goes out in disguises. He had to have disguises ready at hand. He could have a grandmother with a trunk full of costumes in the attic, but the idea I arrived at I liked better: he had a theatrical family. After that, it all started happening. I figured out how to get rid of the parents, and I started thinking about plots.

The "Lost Things" apply to things large and small--Max's parents being the large thing--to something as small as the Baroness's spoon, and yet the spoon's significance is large. Did you have fun coming up with what would be lost and how Max would "find" it?

I went about it not directly, because, as I say, I'm not a good plotter. Originally, the first paragraph of the first chapter read, "When Max was 12, he lost his parents." Then I thought about, "What does it mean to be lost?" You lose your mind, you lose your way, your sense of direction, your watch; you lose track, you lose an idea. I thought about the kinds of things you can lose and the variety of ways in which you lose them. Things like the dog that wasn't lost but ran away.

Did the way in which Max would solve the mysteries affect your choices about what he would have to find?

With things that are lost, you can always think of a circuitous way of finding them. Once I had the idea of Max being a theatrical kid and being left behind and needing to survive, what interested me was the solving of problems. How you can think around them, burrow under them, rather than being destroyed by them or spinning your wheels. I used to tell my students: in literature as in life, there are no right answers, there are only good questions. There's no way of knowing; you're just intelligently guessing. Any child that comes into my range, I'd like to plant that idea in their heads.

Sometimes you think you have the answers, but the answers change as you change.

You need to accept that, too, that the answers change as we go through life. There are so many things that any sentient adult wants to plant with kids, there's no room for them to think for themselves.

Max starts out as independent and self-reliant, even before he's left behind. We see that, at 12, he's already resourceful because his parents are so preoccupied.

The question of independence at that stage is ambiguous. On the one hand, you want to be independent and run your own life; on the other hand, you're not sure you can.

My sense of what childhood is comes from the late 1940s and 1950s. As a teacher, I got another 20 years' effective range. They haven't changed that much. It's a psychological state that we go through, no matter how many technological devices and certain new stresses come in. I think kids should feel independent, but I don't think adults are always trustworthy. Parents are telling you you're independent for the same reason they send you to summer camp--some send you because they think you'll experience independence, and others because they won't have to think about you all summer.

Did you conceive of this as a series?

I thought of it as three books to start with, then four, then I went back to three. I sent it first to my agent, who had her doubts. What Nancy [Siscoe, my editor] at Knopf, who I think is doing a really good job, insisted upon--and it made the revisions more arduous--was seeing all three [before she offered me a contract]. I had the second one written by that time. That's very sensible.

When you wrote Homecoming, did you know it would be the start of the Tillerman Cycle?

I knew at the end of Homecoming that I wanted to write Dicey's Song, and I knew pretty much how. Those books are seriously not plot-driven. They began with a single branch that starts growing out to become a new tree. Solitary Blue grew out of Dicey's Song. Once I wrote A Solitary Blue, I knew I could write The Runner.

Are there advantages and disadvantages to stand-alone titles versus series?

Yes--it helps to have characters and setting. There are a number of mistakes you don't have to make when you have characters in hand. But the danger is that you assume you know these things, so you don't ask yourself questions. Somehow, it seems to me I always know when I'm doing lazy work. Then there's the danger of a series going on too long. Anne of Green Gables should have stopped after book one.

A book that stands alone can make an impression that a series can't. And a series can enter your life in a way that a stand-alone book can't.

Max gets a lot of his ideas about how to approach a mystery--and even how to solve it--from the plays he has seen, especially Shakespeare. Do you think literature holds the key to a lot of life's mysteries?

Here's the kernel of the whole thing for me. That's why you want people to read. It broadens their world. It opens a dialogue they might not have at home or school. It's a lifelong sport. There was a teacher at the school I taught at--he was very good but burnt out. He dealt with students I knew in a hamhanded fashion. Now and then he'd say something so clear and wise that you weren't allowed to blow him off. He said, "The reason you want kids to read literature is not because of its present relevance, but to allow them to think about a situation that they're going to face." --Jennifer M. Brown


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