There’s a serious problem in middle grade fiction, or at least the fiction that is made available to students under the guise of teaching them something. It tends to be watered down or outdated or otherwise out of reach. The readability (in terms of a Fry Readability Formula) too often equates easy to read with “boring,” as if we can’t take a lower level vocabulary and make it interesting or exciting. The flip side is that books with a higher interest level and greater adventure reach tend to have elitist vocabulary levels, as if this book isn’t for you if you don’t already read on a tenth grade level.
Fortunately, Anderson Atlas’ book addresses that very real need. It’s easy to assume from the intro paragraph here that it has a dumbed-down vocabulary, but that’s far from it. It’s more like an incredibly natural vocabulary level, as if the author actually knows some people in the age range of his intended audience (shock and surprise…far too many authors who strive to write for middle grade or young adult readers don’t actually KNOW any; instead, they write the way they think those people SHOULD talk/read).
In Atlas’ book, there are some key issues addressed that MG readers often face: family dynamics, struggles in school, the need to fit in. More importantly, the author has addressed a serious lack in MG adventure books, and that’s the elusive “inclusive” character. The MC, Allan, is a paraplegic whose accident has also left him unable to speak due to the trauma. Instead of being a forced scenario in which the character is in a wheelchair just to prove that he’s “just like us!” this is a character who has faced events that many people never recover from. Truthfully, Allan seems on the surface as if he might not want to recover from it, either.
Instead of being a very fake characteristic for our story’s lead, his physical status is actually crucial to the plot. At times a cross between Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Allan meets a cast of diverse alien characters and is thrown into one dangerous scenario after another. Unlike those other books, Allan’s journey is dark and dangerous and filled with slave traders and meat-eaters named Jibbawk who apparently favor tender humans.
There is no shortage of bizarrely dangerous books aimed at a ten and up audience right now, but they lack something that Improbabey Quest has: wholly fictionalized world building that leads to adventure instead of just survival. Don’t get me wrong, The Hunger Games was fantastic, but it’s too plausible for a younger audience. The ability to suspend all plausibility is what makes this a work of fantasy, and therefore, a “safe” but intriguing read.