New York Times science writer Benedict Carey, in his first book for children, fills a unique niche in the mystery genre. He packs The Unknowns with drama, excitement, pulse-racing action and some pretty serious math too. I was a bit skeptical going in, but there is a lot to this book and the author pulls it off.
The story takes place on an island that contains Folsom Energy Plant and Adjacent trailer park. Carey does a superb job evoking this place — the trash, the kind-but-down-and-out inhabitants, the ways of trailer park living. As Deborah Stevenson noted in the Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books, “Carey takes the puzzle-book format, familiar in works from Raskin’s The Westing Game (BCCB 9/78) to Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer (BCCB 7/04), and gives it a rawboned and rich human story with a vivid sense of place.”
The two main characters, Di and Tom, are appealing 7th graders — smart and marginalized. When they discover a local resident, their math tutor Mrs. Clark, has gone missing, and clues that suggest she wanted them to find something major to do with the plant— off they go. Pulling in a few other kids, supported by other adult eccentrics, the kids do math, have adventures, and save the day. Carey’s remarkable portrayal of Adjacent and its inhabitants, his endearing protagonists, and several edge-of-your-seat situations completely won me over. The math puzzles are fun (and become more complex as the story goes on) and there is excitement and drama aplenty.
While The Unknowns was written for and is bound to particularly appeal to young mathematicians, I’m pretty lousy when it comes to math yet I enjoyed it tremendously. I recommend it to anyone who likes atmospheric stories, mysteries, and puzzles-not-easily-solved.
For another enthusiastic review see Erin Fry’s at the LA Times.
The book’s designer, Chad W. Beckerman has a cool post on the evolution of the book’s cover.