Grisham’s first book for kids is the story of amiable thirteen-year old Theo who loves the law, haunts the courthouse, and helps his classmates and friends with their own legal troubles, say a looming foreclosure, a nasty divorce, or a runaway dog. He lives in a generic-sounding city with pleasant lawyer parents and goes to the gentlest middle school ever. And someone in this very nice situation is about to get away with murder.
Sounds promising, doesn’t it? And for kids who are as interested as Theo in the law and the details of criminal trials I think it might work, but others may find all the exposition about trials and the legal system with little action to balance it very draggy. Not to mention awfully adult-centered. While there are a few moments involving Theo’s classmates, say that runaway dog and another’s horrible custody situation, the central story is about a murder trial involving adults, a seventeen-year old potential witness with a secret that keeps him afraid to come forward, and a bunch of adult secondary characters — Theo’s parents, his uncle, the judge, his teacher, various courthouse and law office workers, and so on.
While I have no doubt some kids will stick with this to see how Theo manages to see that justice is served, I’m guessing others will not want to plod through all the endless telling. Not to mention that Theo just doesn’t really feel like a contemporary thirteen-year old in a 2010 situation. Hardly anyone in his school or grade has a cell phone? Please. He can’t do sports because of asthma? If it is that serious (rather than a clumsy way to make him free after school) then shouldn’t he be carrying an inhaler and having attacks now and then? I’ve students with asthma, but it never keeps them from doing sports.
And what about the sex? (Got you there, didn’t I?) Early on Grisham writes that Theo doesn’t know a “single thirteen-year-old boy who admitted to having a girlfriend. Just the opposite. They wanted nothing to do with them. And the girls felt the same way. Theo had been warned that things would change, and dramatically, but that seemed unlikely.” What the …? This wasn’t true in my day and I’m OLDER than Grisham. And then later in the book we get a teeny little sidestory about the most popular girl in the eighth grade and how cute she is, how she loves to flirt, her A and B lists, and so on. She is dropped in and then out again, but clearly Theo has some feelings, clean ones of course, when it suits the storyteller. Lame, lame, lame.
Then there is poor April whose awful parents are in a custody battle over her. She disappears for long periods and her storyline feels very forced — just a way, it seems, to throw a female into the mix. I mean, she doesn’t DO anything except worry and such. Couldn’t she at least be Theo’s sidekick? Oh, I forgot, he’s got his dog Judge for that. Or maybe his grungy uncle Ike is meant to fulfill that role? Certainly, he helps Theo save the day in the end.
A few of the many other things that bugged me:
- The family watching Perry Mason reruns (reruns? reruns? what kid today calls them reruns) at 7PM once a week. Huh?
- The scary-possibly-bad-guy named Omar Cheepe — must you use the foreign-sounding-name card in 2010?
- The still-getting-comfortable-with-English character from El Salvador saying things like, “He ventured over in one of the utility carts…”
My verdict: unfortunately dull.