Book Review: Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt
There’s a lot to love in this middle-grade novel about a very smart boy looking for solutions. Max, age 12, is the son of two successful, larger-than-life parents who run their own theater company and bring their characters to life day after day. Max enjoys the show but likes his place on the sidelines — until a mysterious letter arrives offering Max’s parent a too-good-to-be-true opportunity for fame and fortune, which they immediately accept. Max and his parents are due to set sail from their unnamed town on a luxurious ocean-liner headed for India, but on the day of departure, Max shows up at the docks at the appointed time only to discover that his parents have gone already — and that the ship they were meant to board does not actually exist.
Left behind, Max determines that his best course is independence, so even though his grandmother (Grammie) wants to take him in and care for him in his parents’ absence, Max decides to live under his own roof and support himself by any means possible. (His house is right next door to Grammie’s, so it’s not that dramatic a separation, after all). But how can a 12-year-old survive on his own — and what happened to his parents? Max stumbles onto a good thing, realizing that by enacting the parts he’s seen his father play so many times, he can assume any persona he needs: town official, humble laborer, stuffy bureaucrat, ardent detective. Max is a chameleon, and as he slips into his different characters, he begins to solve problems for the townspeople he encounters, earning enough along the way to retain his independence and managing to help the people he cares for in different ways as well.
Mister Max is a charming book, with a main character who is good-hearted, caring, and endlessly inventive. Max does not have magical resources or superpowers; instead, he uses his wits and logic to find solutions and set things right, figuring out not only facts but reasons and motivations, and helping others to figure out what it is that they truly want and need.
My main quibble with Mister Max is that it lacks a certain urgency. Although Max’s parents’ disappearance is the catalyst for the book’s story line, this mystery mostly sits on the back burner for much of the book. It’s a problem for Max and a worry, but he spends much more of his time solving other people’s problems and worries. True, there isn’t much he can do and there aren’t many clues — but Max seems to mostly take a shrug-your-shoulders, get-on-with-it sort of approach to his current situation. It’s all very pragmatic, but I’m afraid at times the plot concerning the mystery of Max’s parents seems to get buried in all the other busy moments of Max’s independent life.
Still, it’s an entertaining and clever read, and refreshing in an old-fashioned sort of way. The specific time and place of the book’s setting isn’t revealed, but it appears to take place sometime in the early 1900s. Travel is by steamship, communication is conducted via letters and telegrams, and Max weaves his way through the streets of Old Town and New Town on his trusty bicycle. There’s a simplicity to the problems that Max is hired to solve, and his solutions are smart and simple — perhaps needing a 12-year-old’s eyes to see the clues and patterns that closed-minded adults might miss.
I do wonder how well this book will work for the intended audience, children ages 8 – 12. At 400 pages, this is a rather hefty book, and the pace is somewhat slow, particularly for kids more used to reading books about fantasy worlds or high-speed adventures. Still, the writing is engaging and the characterizations are funny, straight-forward, and evocative, so that within a few well-written lines, we clearly see into the heart of each new character we meet and understand what makes them all tick. Author Cynthia Voigt is adept at talking to children without talking down, and it’s obvious that she credits her reading audience with a great deal of intelligence. It’s whether young readers will have the patience to commit to such a lengthy, character driven book that I’m not so sure about.
I read this book after receiving a review copy, and needless to say, I can’t help but apply an adult perspective to the action and the plot. I’d like to try this one out on my 11-year-old and see what he thinks. I have a feeling that Mister Max is a more subtle read than he’s used to, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t enjoy it, if he gives it a fair chance… and I’d imagine this may be true for other kids his age as well. Mister Max feels like the kind of story that might have been more popular a generation ago, but I do believe kids today will enjoy it, if they can just stick with it long enough to get into the flow and rhythm of a different sort of storytelling.
Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things is apparently first in a series, and ends without resolving the central question: What happened to Max’s parents? I’ll be interested in seeing where the series goes and what happens next for Max.
Title: Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things
Author: Cynthia Voight
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Middle Grade fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Knopf via NetGalley