Ellen Potter's latest novel, The Kneebone Boy, is a darkly humorous middle grade mystery/adventure sure to appeal to fans of the Lemony Snicket books and Lois Lowry's The Willoughbys. It features the three Hardscrabble siblings. Otto, Lucia, and Max have been living as social outcasts in their small town since the mysterious disappearance of their mother several years before. Their isolation is also, perhaps, because they are a bid odd. Especially the eldest, Otto, who always wears the same scarf around his neck, and only speaks using sign language.
When a mix-up leaves the three stranded in London with only the clothes on their backs, they find themselves launched on an Adventure. They soon find themselves digging into multiple mysteries, such as "what happened to Mother", "who is Great-Aunt Haddie", "Does the reclusive Kneebone Boy really exist?", and "Is this really a five-legged cat?".
I found the action of this book to ramp up a bit slowly, though this changed about 1/3 of the way into the book, and the middle and ending were quite compelling. I kept reading in the meantime because I enjoyed the contrast between Potter's matter-of-fact writing style and the Gothic tone and setting of the book. As noted on a Booklist blurb on the back of the book (though that blurb was for a different novel), there are nods to both Snicket and Dahl.
Potter uses a literary device by which one of the three children is telling the story, but the reader doesn't know which one. There are various direct asides to the reader, as well as honest admissions and occasional sibling spats. I think that this vagueness about the narrator lends some additional interest for the reader, since another mystery to try to solve is "which sibling is the narrator?".
Here are a couple of passages, to give you a feel for Potter's writing style:
"There were three of them. Otto was the oldest, and the oddest. Then there was Lucia, who wished something interesting would happen. Last of all was Max, who always thought he knew better. They lived in a small down in England called Little Tunks. There was no Big Tunks. One Tunks was more than enough for everyone." (Page 1, ARC)
"They were silent for a moment. Then Lucia said, "So, what do we do now?"
"Nothing," Otto said. "Things will go on as they always have."
Note to reader: If you ever want your life to turn topsy-turvy, say, "Things will go on just as they always--" Oops, I almost said it. Anyway, say the last words that Otto just said. I, however, want to keep my life as normal as possible, so I can get on with writing this book." (Page 37, ARC)
"It was the right and responsible thing to do, so they put it off until later." (Page 120, ARC)
That last line especially made me smile. Even though the children are quirky, and even though over-the-top things happen to them, they are reassuringly real.
I didn't see the ending of the book coming, though in retrospect I could have -- all of the clues were there. The reason I didn't stemmed from the same aspect that I noticed in Potter's Olivia Kidney books - it's a bit hard to tell how realistic the setting is supposed to be (vs. fantasy elements), and thus to predict how the ending will go. That's not at all a criticism. I think that The Kneebone Boy will keep kids guessing until the last page - and that's a very good thing. I enjoyed The Kneebone Boy, and I recommend it for middle grade readers and up, boys and girls.
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication Date: September 14, 2010
Source of Book: Advanced review copy from the author
© 2010 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and may result in my receiving a small commission on purchases (with no additional cost to you).