Monday, November 1, 2010

Review of The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter

Potter, Ellen. The Kneebone Boy. Feiwel and Friends, 2010.

There is a subgenre of children's literature that needs a name. It isn't fantasy - there is no magic and the setting is contemporary. And yet once could hardly call it realistic, either, as there are usually credulity-straining events and an atmospheric tension. Could we call it Contemporary Gothic, perhaps? The Series of Unfortunate Events would be a prime example.

And here is another. The three Hardscrabble siblings (note the outrageous Dickensian name) live in Little Tunks (I would point out the absurdity of this name as well, except that there are far stranger English place names). Their mother disappeared 5 years ago under mysterious circumstances when oldest sibling Otto was 8. Lucia, the middle sibling, and Max, the youngest, hardly remember her at all. Otto, though, stopped talking when his mother left and only communicates through a unique sign language that he and Lucia created.

Their father, who makes his living traveling around the world painting portraits of deposed royalty, leaves suddenly on another business trip, and the siblings, after a series of mishaps and adventures, end up in the seaside town of Snoring-by-the-Sea, where their aunt Haddie is staying in a folly on the grounds of Kneebone Castle.

Mystery #1 - Why did the children never know they had an aunt Haddie? (they only found out by accident when they read a letter meant for their dad)
Mystery #2 - What happened to the children's mother?
Mystery #3 - Which of the siblings is narrating the tale?
Mystery #4 - Who lives at Kneebone Castle?
Mystery #5 - Who is the Kneebone Boy?
Mystery #6 - ...well, there are many more mysteries, the further along in this delightful and convoluted tale one gets. The reader will discover the answers to these questions and many more, including several extremely unexpected ones.
One question to which I didn't discover the answer (and more than likely I missed it, since I forgot that it was a mystery until I finished the whole book) is why cats swarmed all over the Hardscrabble household in a downright unnatural way. See? Almost a fantasy, but not quite.

Our narrator sprinkles the tale with plenty of Briticisms, commentary (usually snarky) on the odd characters the Hardscrabbles encounter, and fascinating glimpses at the interactions and relationship of the intense, intelligent Hardscrabble siblings - whom the reader gets to know well and like quite a lot. Although they are fiercely loyal, they squabble enough, and in a reassuringly normal way, to keep them rather down-to-earth. The narration also makes clear fairly early on just who our narrator must be.

This is one of those books that manages to feel both modern and old-fashioned. There are bits and pieces of Enid Blyton, E Nesbit, Edward Eager, and more (can it be a total coincidence that Ellen Potter's first name begins with E??) - and yet the brisk, knowing narration and fascinating characters (especially Aunt Haddie) have a contemporary edge.

This is a mystery that readers will absolutely devour, I have no doubt. And the jacket art appeal even to my choosy, stylish 16-year-old, who agrees with a character in the book that Otto is quite "dishy."

Highly recommended for ages 9 to 13.


  1. Oh, this sounds really interesting. I'll keep an eye out for it. I think Contemporary Gothic is a great subgenre title.

  2. Meet the Hardscrabbles: Otto is the oldest who wears a scarf all the time and hasn't spoken a word since the day his mother disappeared, Lucia is a hard-headed girl who is perfectly content to take the lead, and Max is the youngest who has a keen eye and never turns down a moment to think. When their father takes off on one of his routine mysterious trips and leaves them with poor instructions, the children suddenly find themselves chasing after clues and answers. With nothing but the clothes on their backs and a five-legged cat, the Hardscrabbles set off on an adventure more important than any one of them could have imagined.