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Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things by Newbery medalist Cynthia Voigt (Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16.99, ages 8-12) is reviewed today by Ronna Mandel.
Mister Max (Book 1 in a trilogy) is middle grade fiction at its most entertaining. There are 25 chapters with curious titles such as Chapter 4 “In which Max doesn’t want to get out of bed, Grammie is bossy, and Madame Olenka enters the scene” to lure readers into the story. There are at least seven illustrations by Iacopo Bruno scattered throughout the novel, but since I read an ARC (advanced readers’ copy), the final artwork was still to come. However the rough sketches I saw looked exactly how I’d pictured certain scenes and I liked what Bruno chose to detail for every illustration. They certainly help ground the reader in the time period.
This first Mister Max installment takes readers to a country never named, but that sounds a lot like England. Kids will also note that the time period is never mentioned nor is the type of currency which leaves lots open for interpretation and imagination. The port city where all the action (and there’s plenty of that) takes place comprises Old Town and New Town (there’s a map included in the beginning). It’s in Old Town where we meet twelve-year-old Max (a lad with unusually colored eyes) and his parents Mary and William Starling in their cozy dining room circa early 1900s, perhaps in the Edwardian era. The Starlings, founders of the Starling Theatrical Company, earn a comfortable living, but excitement is more or less vicarious. So, when they receive a mysterious invitation from an Indian Maharajah to journey by sea and then help him establish a theatrical company of his own, the promise of such an exotic adventure is hard to resist.
I was immediately transported to this masterfully created land where Max’s parents are then kidnapped at embarkation and he is left to fend for himself. Tweens will be easily hooked on the mystery of what’s happened to the adults and a bunch of other mysteries which ensue. Voigt’s colorful cast of characters, by the way, are as equally engaging as the storyline.
Readers will likely relate to Max’s desire for independence, a big theme often repeated throughout the book. But how can he manage on his own? Thankfully there’s his Grammie, the librarian, living just across the way to make sure he continues to eat and be educated. Having grown up in the theatre, Max is adept at creating new personas like his actor parents. This skill will serve him well as he seeks out employment opportunities to keep the money coming in while also attending to his studies.
It isn’t long before the mystery of Max’s parents’ disappearance starts unfolding as the appearance of certain suspicious indivuals helps shed light on what may have happened. All the while Max is finding other mysteries cross his path. Hired first by a father and daughter looking for a lost dog, Max begins to earn money solving these problems (or crimes?) wearing theater costumes and using lines from various plays his father’s performed in. And though many people in the novel refer to Max as a detective, he is adamant he is not a detective, but rather a “solutioneer.”
The intertwining of some sub-plots is fun as readers watch most things fall into place as the book progresses. For example, Max’s involvement in finding a lost treasure may also be the link to resurrecting a failed romance. And his sense of consciousness grows as the caseload does.
When the book ends with Chapter 25 entitled “In which what is lost is – in a way – found,” readers will be happy to find this is really not the end and will be eagerly awaiting Book 2.