(Middle) Grade A Mystery: The Danger Box

Although I do like this cover, I miss Brett Helquist's quirky illustrations...

What a great title. If this doesn’t pique a reader’s interest, then the author’s note will. Or the chapter headings. Or the fact that this mystery is absorbing and funny right from the very beginning. In short, there is a lot to love in Blue Balliett’s latest offering.

Blue Balliett reminds me of E.L. Konigsburg. Both of them are unique and distinctive. Just as Konigsburg broke new ground in children’s fiction in the 1960s, I believe Balliett is doing the same today. Her books are like intricate puzzles, full of facts, intrigue, riddles, and truly unique characterizations. Some authors are good at delivering a plot or concept, some write amazing character pieces, but Balliett fires on all cylinders.

Case in point: The Danger Box. Zoomy, so named after his absentee father’s invisible friend, lives in Three Oaks with his grandparents and is doing just fine until his father shows up with an old box that sets a series of mysterious events in motion. Inside the box, Zoomy finds a leather notebook that appears to be written in code or as a series of lists. With the help of his new friend, Lorrol, aspiring investigative reporter, Zoomy discovers that he may in fact have stumbled across a long-lost journal of Charles Darwin. But someone else is looking for the box, and will stop at nothing to retrieve it. 

The Danger Box has mystery, a multi-perspective narrative, factual information about Charles Darwin, an encoded letter that readers can attempt to crack themselves (or with the help of the website provided), and a truly unique character who is living and coping (quite succesfully) with at least one disorder.  

There have been a glut of books recently with protagonists dealing with some form of disoder, such as asperger’s, tourette’s syndrome, autism, OCD, etc. I believe these books are important and for the most part I enjoy reading them, when they are well done (see Rules, The London Eye Mystery, Marcello in the Real World, and of course, the gold standard, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time). However, we seem to be reaching the saturation point and I’m worried that is has become a bit of a gimmick and is losing it’s impact. Not so with this book.

Zoomy, who is almost legally blind due to a condition called Pathological Myopia, functions by making lists and keeping an extensive collection of notebooks. When he is upset, he reacts by tapping his chin over and over again, until he is able to calm down. Despite having what others may perceive as ‘limitations,’ Zoomy believes that he is able to see the world differently, and that this is a good thing. What a refreshing take on the subject. 

And what a stroke of brilliance on the part of Balliett- drawing comparisons between a famous scientist and a kid dealing with many issues who just can’t seem to catch a break. Zoomy discovers that Darwin also made lists and kept extensive notebooks, just like him. He is relieved and inspired by this information. You can’t go to a single section of a bookstore these days and not run into a book about or inspired by Charles Darwin. The man is making a comeback in a big way. Balliett includes a note at the end, pointing out the facts from the fiction in her novel. Most of the Darwin information is factual, including the missing notebook, something I’m sure readers will find fascinating.

 Although there are many things to love about this book, what I loved most of all was the relationship between Zoomy and his grandparents, Gam and Gumps. There is so much love and compassion in this book it makes me want to weep. When Zoomy’s father shows up and is nothing less than horrible, Gam and Gumps reassure Zoomy that he is their number one priority. It is Gam to figures out that Zoomy needs routine and structure to his days, and Gumps who defends him, even against his own son and Zoomy’s father, Buckeye. The Danger Box is another solid addition to Balliett’s growing selection of quirky, semi-factual mysteries. Be sure to add it to your must-read list for the fall! 

The Danger Box will be available from Scholastic Press in September 2010.

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