101 years in the future, thirteen-year-old Zack and eleven-year-old Andy find themselves caught up in a new civil war. After various misadventures including time-traveling portals at baseball fields and old abandoned supermarkets, a three-dimensional letter, and a ruined library full of frightful reminders that they are nowhere near home, the boys team up with future teenage resistance fighter Wendy and her crew. The boys face trial after trial as they begin to figure out what, exactly, is going on in this future: fifty years of cultural memory has vanished, and every possible thing is now manufactured by a shadowy organization––CORT. Children and seniors live segregated lives, with children brainwashed into accepting the new system from toddlerhood. One of the boys is captured, leading to the formation of a rescue party and a cliffhanger ending.
Now, I personally am not the biggest fan of cliffhangers! Many a young adult or middle grade novel has been flung across the room in my house because of an unfinished series leaving readers hooked–and frustrated that they can’t keep going the minute they finish earlier books in the series. (I do not condone the throwing of books, whether print or digital. As a librarian, here is my obligatory reminder to take good care of your precious stories.) Having said all of this, I do know that cliffhangers are an effective tool in an author’s toolbox, and that the mere fact I’m still grumbling about those cliffhangers from the distant past indicates those authors have made good use of this particular tool. Still, I am eager to lay my hands on the next book in this series so that I can learn the ultimate fates of Zack, Andy, and Wendy.
Middle grade readers will probably also be familiar with dystopias–future worlds where the systems governing society and/or government have somehow gone awry and are no longer serving to protect and serve those people who remain. There is always some rather mature themes involved in communicating dystopic ideas, and The Portal is no exception. Parents and readers should be aware that bombs fly and skeletons turn up at the most inopportune times, and yet the reading level or difficulty of this series indicates that it is written for those transitioning from Easy Reader (ER) books into chapter books. I could see this being a hit with the demographic currently (if clunkily) referred to as “struggling readers”: in other words, those children struggling to make the transition in reading level difficulty to the Junior Fiction section of the local school or public library. (I’m thinking of the Dork Diaries audience here.) The combination of an action-driven plot. lower-difficulty language, and eye-catching illustrations set these books apart from your more standard chapter books.
And those illustrations–I really can’t say enough about Richa Kinra’s ability to communicate so much in simple black-and-white pencil sketches. The face of each and every character is just so expressive, and important details within the story well featured. I’ve been drawing and painting since I could hold a pencil (or brush) and I absolutely could not even halfway imitate Kinra’s fantastic work.
What’s not to love? There are action sequences: The bombs! The evil robots! The people running! The purple flames! And there are also the mysteries: Who sent the letter? And how? Where do the seniors and children go? What is CORT really after? How did the resistance first get started? At around 75 pages, Bernstein’s first book in this series only just hints at answers still to come. Despite the occasional typographical hiccup, The Portal reads as a fun, immersive romp. Here’s hoping there are many installments left to come!
Going into this book, I expected it to be solidly good. I’ve never yet been disappointed by any book picked out by the CIPA EVVY process as a merit or award winner, and The Portal was in keeping with that high expectation. As much a work of fantasy as it is of science fiction, this book is very much written with a middle grade audience in mind, and is packed with the kind of zany adventures junior readers love.
WHERE TO BUY?
The next book on my list is rather a pithy one: a nonfiction exploration of both the present and historical past of the Old Spanish Trail, portions of which I happen to be a bit familiar with, but much of which has intrigued me for years! I’m definitely the kind of person that can get lost in a guidebook to (name a national forest or park or monument) or any book along the lines of A Roadside Geology of … book. Much to look forward to!
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
* Courtesy of Bookshop.org book listing.