Ross Welford's complex, fast-paced debut novel follows a capable young British-Indian hero who will steal any moped, face any bully and travel back in time however often it takes to prevent the childhood go-kart accident that killed his father.
For his birthday, Al (Albert Einstein Hawking Chaudhury, to be precise) gets a huge surprise when his mother gives him an envelope from his deceased dad, who requested that it be given to Al when he turned 12 years old. Al (who now lives with his mother, her soccer-crazed new husband, Steve, and Carly, "the Stepsister from Hell") notices Grandpa Byron, his Punjabi paternal grandfather, seems tense and pale at the sight of the envelope, but both he and Al's mum deny knowledge of the contents. Inside the envelope is a letter in which Al's father tells him, "You are about to learn, Al, how to travel in time." Could it really be possible to travel back in time, befriend his father as a young boy and stop that fateful accident? Either way, he'll have to tend to his other birthday surprise, too: a baby hamster named Alan Shearer.
The thought of having his dad back again gets Al so excited it makes him "feel a bit sick." But part of him senses that the journey through time may be a "truly epically bad idea." Before Al can even consider warping the space-time continuum, he will have to solve an even bigger problem: his father's time machine--an old Mac laptop, a black electronics box and a zinc tub--is still in the nuclear fallout shelter at their old house, now owned by strangers, 10 miles down the English coast. Through a series of schemes involving "borrowing" Grandpa Byron's mauve moped, getting help from the snarky gothed-out Carly by promising a séance, and even setting fire to his school, Al races the clock time and again. In Al's fresh, funny, first-person voice, American kids will hear the occasional Briticism, such as "torch" instead of "flashlight."
The plot of Time Traveling with a Hamster bears a passing similarity to the '80s film Back to the Future, but Welford's spin on it is impressively sophisticated. Rather than take young readers' disbelief in time travel for granted, he addresses its complicated questions head-on, including the grandfather paradox, the butterfly effect and the question of whether the same person can exist twice in the same moment. The scientific thought experiments and an appealing digression on mnemonic devices will entertain brainy readers, while the emotional depth of the characters and Al's sometimes comical, sometimes tense hijinks will draw in those who like their sci-fi on the softer side.
There is an animal cruelty scene late in the book that may sneak up on the sensitive, but overall, Al's devotion and bravery, together with the message that a kid can make a difference for a beloved adult, will grab tweens and young teens by the heartstrings. --Jaclyn Fulwood, lead librarian at Del City Public Library, Okla.
Shelf Talker: In this engaging British import, 12-year-old Al Chaudhury travels back in time to try to prevent the moment that would result in his father's death decades later.