Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Wednesday, June 10, 2020: Kids' Maximum Shelf: The Silver Arrow

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: The Wild Robot and The Wild Robot Escapes by Peter Brown

The Silver Arrow

by Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman, author of the wildly popular adult fantasy series the Magicians, turns his hand to writing for a middle-grade audience in The Silver Arrow. He overwhelmingly succeeds. Believable characters with complex emotions ground his magical world in reality, while his swiftly moving plot ebbs and flows with moments of adventure and poignancy. Blending fantasy with the all-too-real, Grossman's world is imaginative and conveys a clear conservation message.

Kate is an average kid: she reads a lot, takes piano and tennis lessons, and once in a while plays with her younger brother, Tom. "But some days, as she pounded away at the mahogany upright in the living room or punished the garage door with her forehands and backhands, Kate found herself feeling restless." Kate and Tom's mother and father aren't exactly winning any parenting awards--"parenting just never seemed to be right at the top of their list of priorities"--which leaves Kate with plenty of time to realize that she was "ready for something more exciting. More real. Something that actually mattered." On the eve of her 11th birthday, she writes to her uncle Herbert, a "very rich and totally irresponsible" man she's never met, and asks him to send her a present. To her surprise (because she didn't address the letter or put a stamp on it), a present from Uncle Herbert arrives: "an actual, real, life-sized steam train." Well, an engine and its tender, at least. Uncle Herbert, wearing a banana-yellow suit that matches his insanely slick, tricked-out Tesla, delivers "The Silver Arrow" himself. Kate's parents are livid and begrudgingly allow Kate to keep the train for one week only, then Herbert must take it back.

A few hours later, Tom tells Kate the train is on fire: "There was the tiniest flicker of what looked like warm firelight in the cab of the steam engine." And there are now bright new steel tracks extending through the grass. Upon examining the train more closely, they find white steam swirling around its wheels and the tender filled with coal. Just as Kate wishes the train could really go somewhere, a big lever shifts forward with a clunk, brass wheels start spinning, needles and gauges start stirring and "the whole thing, all 102.36 tons of it, started rolling forward along the tracks as smoothly as a boat across a still pond." It appears Kate will finally get to do something more exciting--which Uncle Herbert mysteriously warns is a huge job that she is not ready for.

After traveling through woods that didn't exist before, the train approaches a station with passengers waiting on the platform. These aren't ordinary human passengers, they're animals--"a few deer, a wolf, several foxes, a big brown bear, some rabbits or hares... and a stripy-faced badger"--holding tickets in their mouths. The animals tell Kate it's been 30 years since a train came through and they'd better head over to the rail yard to pick up some cars because "it's almost too late." Uncle Herbert meets them at the rail yard to help build their train, then sends them on their way with a short set of rules: "Keep the water tank full, and never let the fire go out. And keep an eye out for the twilight star."

What begins as an adventure slowly turns into a mission as Kate and Tom face "invaders," a train low on fuel and near-impossible track placements, all while trying to get the animals safely to their respective stations. It won't be easy, but as the train's passengers say, "there is nothing more terrifyingly effective and resourceful than a human being."

Lev Grossman's The Silver Arrow benefits from the influences of Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but he makes it his own with original, entertaining details. The magical train in this story speaks through a typewriter-like messaging system, and one of its cars has the "Aladdin's cave" of candy counters. Grossman also creates grand moments of wonder through his descriptions. For example, when Kate, Tom and their passengers must experience life as trees in exchange for firewood, it's almost as if Grossman has been a tree himself. He describes the seasons in such a way that one completely understands what it feels like, for instance, to lose leaves in the autumn: "as though she'd been wearing a lovely ball gown that had gotten slightly uncomfortable and now she could finally take it off." The author stretches out these instances, suspended moments of calm within the quick-moving plot.

While Grossman discusses animal conservation without being heavy-handed, he doesn't sugarcoat humanity's part in upsetting the balance of the animal kingdom, and he explains the importance of animals staying in their natural habitats. He depicts a polar bear whose station has melted while waiting for the train as "strangely thin for a bear" and "exhausted," and pointedly discusses how animals' environments have been destroyed, pushing species to endangerment or extinction. But there is an encouraging message here, too. While humans are "the original invasive species that created all the other ones," they are "the most successful animal there ever was," and "when human beings want something, nothing gets in their way." If humans can upset the natural balance of things, they can surely do their best to find a new one. Grossman does warn against having a somebody-else-will-solve-the-problem mentality, though. His warnings come in examples of both adults and children too distracted by devices to notice what's going on around them: "It's like they're awake, but they're asleep." Grossman uses his protagonists to set an example of the capabilities of a "good" human, one who can "survive and triumph against all the odds and save everybody."

Reminiscent of classic fantasy, The Silver Arrow is fast-paced, adventurous and inspiring. --Lana Barnes

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, $16.99, hardcover, 256p., ages 8-12, 9780316539531, September 1, 2020

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman: Seeing Reality Clearly in a Magical World

Lev Grossman is the author of five novels, including the Magicians trilogy, which has been published in 30 countries. A TV adaptation of the trilogy just finished its fifth and final season on Syfy. Grossman is also an award-winning journalist who spent 15 years as the book critic and lead technology writer at Time magazine. He has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Wired, Believer, the Village Voice, NPR, Salon, Slate and Buzzfeed, among many others. He lives in New York City with his wife and three children. Grossman spoke with Shelf Awareness about his debut middle-grade title, The Silver Arrow, available from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on September 1.

You are best known for your adult fantasy trilogy, the Magicians, and The Silver Arrow is your first children's novel. Why this story, and why now?

I have three children, so I have spent a lot of the past decade either reading aloud to children or making up stories for them out of my head. It's a kind of storytelling I've been exploring a lot in private, to the point where I finally feel ready to try and do it as a book. And I love, love, love the way children read--their immersion in a story is total and absolute. It's deeply thrilling for a writer to imagine being read that way.

How have your previous novels prepared you to write for a younger audience? 

The usual way--novel-writing is like any kind of performance, you have to practice, and I've practiced a lot. Narratively, children's novels aren't as complex, there just aren't as many branches. And, since children are demanding audiences, the thread always has to be taut. And you've got a narrower vocabulary to work with.

There are quite a few nods to classic children's literature--a library, a magic train, giving trees, an all-you-can eat candy car, talking animals. Who were some of your favorite authors when you were a child and how have they influenced your writing? 

As a child I had a lot of the usual favorites. C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, A.A. Milne. I also loved a lot of really random writers, too, like Frank Stockton, Daniel Pinkwater and Fritz Leiber. I read a lot, but very chaotically and unsystematically.

Kate's hero is Grace Hopper, the creator of the world's first compiler software. Why did you include her in this story?

She crops up a lot in the history of digital computing, which is something that interests me a lot. And I feel like not enough people know about her. She's somebody who didn't just pioneer a demanding discipline, she did it when no one wanted her to. She persisted. That's a role model!

The Silver Arrow is a magic steam engine that talks. Are you a train aficionado, or did you have to do research about all its bells and whistles?

Oh, both. I love trains, but trains are a rabbit hole and there's always somebody who knows 10 times more than you about them. I certainly didn't know much about actually operating them, but there are marvelous books about how to do it by people who actually drive them. Plus, there are some handy YouTube videos. And I spent some time playing a train simulator game, too.

Let's talk about the tree scene. How did you get into the "head" of a tree?

There have been some wonderful books about the lives and behavior of trees--for example, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, a German forester. I think my way in was the concept of "crown shyness," which is the way certain trees have of stopping growing just as their branches are about to touch neighboring branches. Plus, I've always loved writing from non-human points of view. I find it a lot easier than writing humans. I don't know what that says about me.

A major theme of The Silver Arrow is animal conservation--is this a passion of yours?

It is. But on another level, it's just reality. Human beings have massively changed the natural world and once you've decided to write about animals, there's no other story to tell. If you went to Narnia now and met Mr. Beaver, that's what the conversation would be about.

You don't sugarcoat the effects of human actions on the animal kingdom, but there is certainly a hopeful message here as well. What do you want to achieve with this story?

What I want to achieve, first and foremost, is to tell a good story. What I don't want to achieve is rubbing people's nose in anything. That's no fun and it also doesn't do anybody any good. For Kate, the story is about seeing reality clearly, accepting the challenges and taking responsibility. If it inspires anybody to do that, this book will have done some good.

Without giving away too much of the ending, Uncle Herbert says there are more adventures to come. Will this be an ongoing series? Can you give us any sneak peeks of what's coming up for Kate and Tom?

It's a series! Kate and Tom aren't frozen in time, they'll keep growing up. Their real lives will get more complicated, as will their feelings about each other, as will the world of the Silver Arrow. They'll meet other drivers, friends and rivals, who have different ideas about what the animals need. Questions will arise about how the animals feel about riding a train run by humans, who they have so little reason to trust. Plus: a submarine!

And, what's next for you?

This and that! I have a few TV shows in development, which are moving at a glacial pace, but they are moving. I wrote a movie that was shot just before the pandemic called The Map of Tiny Perfect Things about two teenagers trapped in a repeating day. It should be out on Amazon Prime by the end of the year. I've just finished a screenplay based on a game I love called Monument Valley, and I've been working on an Arthurian novel since forever, which I'm hoping to finish later this year. Although I said that last year. And the year before that. Anyway, coming soon! --Lana Barnes

Powered by: Xtenit