Background: The Navel of the World is the second book in PJ Hoover's The Forgotten Worlds trilogy. I reviewed the first book, The Emerald Tablet, here (and my niece quite liked it, too). In the interest of full disclosure, I'll also add that Tricia Hoover and I are blog friends. We've never met, but we read and comment on one another's blogs on a regular basis. However, I have been reading The Forgotten Worlds trilogy not because I like the author, but because I think that there's a serious need for good middle grade science fiction. And the Forgotten Worlds series fits the bill. In my review of the first book I said: "The Emerald Tablet is a very appealing mix of adventure, speculative science fiction, and middle school camp drama. I enjoyed it as an adult, but I know that I would have adored it as an 11-year-old." The same general assessment holds for Book 2. Boy, my inner 11-year-old loves these books! Note that this review may contain spoilers for The Emerald Tablet.
Review: The Navel of the World continues the adventures of middle schooler Benjamin Holt. In Book 1, Benjamin learned that he and his best friend, Andy, are members of an advanced race called Telegens. He attended summer school in the hidden city of Lemuria, made several new friends, worked on developing his telegenic powers, and discovered that he is one of a set of triplets, the subjects of an important prophecy regarding his entire race. In Book 2, Benjamin works with his friends from The Alliance and his Nogical sidekick, Jack, to find one of his missing brothers. He fights against hidden enemies, struggles with his feelings for his friend Heidi, and, oh yes, travels through time.
The Navel of the World is excellent middle school grade fiction. Even though Benjamin and his friends travel back in time (as you might guess from the "Forgotten Worlds" title), their experiences in Lemuria are filled with intriguing gadgets and telegenetic episodes. There are high-tech toys as well as mind-reading episodes. These are expertly juxtaposed against ordinary middle school dynamics - boy-girl relationships, jealousy, and the occasional shirking of responsibilities. Here is an example of the middle-school feel:
"When Heidi spotted them, she ran over and gave Benjamin a hug. Which was a little weird. Sure, he's missed her and all, but he'd missed Gary, too, and it's not like he would have hugged Gary. Iva maybe. Or maybe not. Iva Marinina was just so pretty, it made Benjamin's lungs feel like collapsing to even look at her sometimes." (Chapter 3, Telegnostics Are Like Bloodhounds). (Don't you love the chapter titles, by the way?)
I like Benjamin's voice (though it's a third-person point of view, the perspective is clearly Benjamin's). He's a bit of a reluctant hero with a dry sense of humor. For example:
"Benjamin sighed and walked to a kiosk to get his homeroom assignment. Homeroom 1110. Very binary." (Chapter 6, Benjamin Gets an Implant)
"Pompousness poured off Nick as he spoke." (Chapter 7, A Chip Off the Old Block)
"Okay, so talking pictures shouldn't be a surprise to Benjamin. But the fact that this talking stone head in this painting in a long dead capital city knew Benjamin's name caught him off guard." (Chapter 15, Geros - Then)
It's a nice mix, the slightly sarcastic voice, the science fiction elements, and the interpersonal dynamics. Another thing that I think will make The Navel of the World appeal to middle schoolers is that there are quite a few references (and even a time-traveling visit or two) to episodes from Greek Mythology. Kids who enjoyed the Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series will find the Forgotten Worlds Trilogy a nice follow-on (though Apollo and Kronos display some differences from their Rick Riordan counterparts).
As an adult reader, I did have a couple of quibbles with the book. I found it a bit convenient that a new character in The Navel of the World just happened to have a father who is a "temporal phasing agent" (a time-travel expert). And although I'm not a fan of writing everything in period-perfect dialect, I found it a bit jarring that a character raised during the Trojan War would say "you guys". (This latter example may have been changed from ARC to final book - I'm not sure). But I don't think that these points will take away from kids' enjoyment of the book.
The Navel of the World has three dimensional characters who bicker and get crushes on each other. It has kids and adults whose motives are questionable. It has protagonists who demonstrate personal sacrifice, loyalty, ingenuity, and humor. All of this is set against a well-rounded setting chock-full of cool technology (a DNA detector that can find anyone, anywhere, with a matching signature, for example). And let's not forget - there's time travel. I highly recommend the Forgotten Worlds trilogy for later elementary and middle school readers. I do think that it's necessary to read the books in order - The Navel of the World won't be very clear for readers unless they've already read The Emerald Tablet. So, start there, and enjoy the ride.
Publisher: CBay Books
Publication Date: October 12, 2009
Source of Book: Advanced review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Reader Rabbit, The Three Muskateers Review, Becky's Book Reviews, Mrs. V's Reviews
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.