I didn’t much care for Matthew J. Kirby‘s middle grade novel, Spell Robbers. There’s a stunning lack of diversity, and I didn’t find the characters that interesting. However, Kirby does add a wrinkle to his narrative by having main character Ben engage in a process I don’t see a lot of in these types of stories: skepticism.
Ben is never 100% convinced that he can trust the grown-ups around him. He considers why and how they may be lying, and he doesn’t willingly accept what they say as truth. It’s really quite fascinating.
A brief plot synopsis: Ben is an actuator who can manipulate reality. (This practice is connected to quantum physics in the story, which is actually a clever way to introduce advanced science to kids.) One day, the teacher he’s working with is kidnapped, and he and his friend Peter are whisked off to this training camp for actuators so they can be turned into, well, superheroes, basically.
So, Ben’s teacher is kidnapped by the bad guys. Then, Ben and Peter are saved by the good guys. BUT. Ben doesn’t think that just because the good guys (The Quantum League) call themselves good guys and that the so-called good guys saved him and Peter from the bad guys means the good guys are actually good. He stipulates that The Quantum League may not be as bad as the kidnappers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good by default.
I love that.
Part of what makes Ben question The Quantum League is (a) their motives and (b) their methods. As is usual in a good v. evil story, the League wants to keep the bad guys from having the teacher and the technology because the bad guys want to do bad stuff with it. But the League is never clear about what they want to do with the technology themselves. Not to mention, part of bringing Ben and Peter into the league means the boys severing ties with their families against their will–something Ben is totally not down with.
Which, come to think of it, is also interesting. Normally, a boy like Peter–one who feels alienated by his family or doesn’t have one, even–would be the typical hero in this type of story. Unlike Ben, Peter does welcome the new life and enters it with no resistance whatsoever. Ben, however, loves his mother and doesn’t want this new life. Though he struggles with where he fits with his classmates, he knows he is loved by his mom and is pretty secure in his identity as such.
So Ben remains skeptical. The grown-ups in the story treat him like a pawn, and he’s aware of that, which makes him wary. He never fully buys what they’re selling, even if he has no real choice but to go along with what they ask of him.
While the story as a whole didn’t work for me, I did appreciate that one element. And that Ben’s mom is in grad school. That was pretty cool, too.
Adventures through Awkwardness: 2/12