Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith is excellent reluctant reader fare. It's about time travel and dinosaurs, and features an 8th grade boy rescuing his older brother and sister. There are full-page black and white illustrations (by Blake Henry) in every chapter, adding a hint of graphic novel feel (though these illustrate, rather than augment, the story).
Max, Kyle, and Emma are sent to spend the summer with their estranged grandfather on his ranch outside of Austin, Texas. Within just a few hours their grandfather is in the hospital, recovering from a massive heart attack, and Emma has been kidnapped by a time-traveling bandit. Max and Kyle, together with a new acquaintance named Petra, have to use their grandfather's time machine to travel back to the age of dinosaurs and rescue Emma.
Chronal Engine is pretty much nonstop action, though sprinkled with many facts about dinosaurs (and other flora and fauna of the Late Cretaceous period). Leitich Smith pays a bit of attention to the paradoxes of time travel, but doesn't get too bogged down in the details. Instead, he spends his energy conveying the feel of the time period in as much detail as possible, while keeping the plot moving. Like this:
"We were all silent, watching the sauropods approach.
Then I gagged at the sudden stench. The wind must have changed. And what the books and fossils didn't tell you was how much the things smelled. Like every putrid odor at the zoo put together with a feedlot and an overripe cat box." (Page 48)
"We could see herds moving below, on the other side. Triceratops, probably, and some kind of crestless hadrosaur. Smaller herds or packs, maybe, of two-legged ornithopods grazed and darted nearby.
Farther up was a swampy-looking lake, with cypresses and lily pads growing out of the water. And on a spur of land sticking into the lake, on the near side, was a charming little quaint wooden cottage and some kind of work shed a little distance beyond." (Page 128)
There's kind of an old-fashioned feel to Chronal Engine. Not in the sense of the time-travel, but more in the style of the book. With the exception of a few references to computers (and a shiny, modern cover), it feels almost like a book that I could have read (and enjoyed) as a 10-year-old. The illustrations are more modern in tone (with a high-end animation sort of style), but the inclusion of regular, full-page, captioned illustrations calls to mind old-fashioned adventure stories for kids. An author's note at the end gives some literary antecedents for the book, and suggests that this quality was intentional on the author's part. There's not a lot of character development, but again, that fits in with the book's genre.(Leitich Smith refers to books like this, about groups of individual stranded in remote settings, as "Robinsonades".)
Chronal Engine is a fun, well-researched novel with an appealing premise. Although Max is about to start 8th grade, and Kyle and Emma (twins) high school, Chronal Engine reads to me more as middle grade than YA. There are a few references to one character or another being cute, but nothing that isn't PG. I think it would work well for middle grade or middle school readers, particularly those with an interest in dinosaurs. I don't think it's as good a pick for older readers, due to a certain lack of complexity to the story. But for current and former, dinosaur-mad boys and girls, Chronal Engine will be irresistible.
Publisher: Clarion Books (@hmhbooks)
Publication Date: March 20, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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