Gary D. Schmidt is one of my favorite authors of realistic fiction for kids. I first ran across him when I reviewed Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, and then I completely fell in love with last year's Okay for Now (which I really thought was going to get some sort of Newbery recognition). In What Came from the Stars, Schmidt ventures, successfully, into the realm of fantasy.
What Came from the Stars is told as two parallel, intersecting stories. We begin with The Last Days of the Valorim on a planet far away from Earth. As their race faces extinction, the last of the Valorim manages to weld all of his society's art into a very special chain. The chain finds its way into the lunchbox of a boy named Tommy Pepper in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Most of the remainder of the book follows Tommy's struggles, with brief sections interspersed that follow the action back on the other planet.
Schmidt clearly spent a lot of time on world-building for What Came from the Stars. Although the Valorim sections are relatively brief, Schmidt developed an extensive vocabulary and worldview for them, complete with unique weapons and special features included in works of art. Some of these things are revealed by Tommy, who picks up an understanding of the other world along with the chain that he wears around his neck.
Schmidt doesn't define the extra-terrestrial words that he uses (until some partial definitions at the very end of the book). The reader is left to figure things out from context. This makes What Came from the Stars a bit of a challenging read, but one that fans of high fantasy will certainly embrace.
I personally found the Valorim sections to be less engaging than Tommy's story, but they do help to provide necessary background, and move Tommy's part of the story along. I liked the way that the Valorim sections were shown in italics, making it easy to determine at a glance which world was being portrayed. Not that this would have been difficult anyway, since the italic sections are written in quite a different style. Like this:
"So the Valorim came to know that their last days were upon them. The Reced was doomed, and the Ethelim they had loved well and guarded long would fall under the sharp trunco of the faceless O'Mondim and the traitors who led them... Not a one of the Valorim did not weep for what would be lost forever." (Page 1)
Tommy's sections, in contrast, are written in a modern-day, sixth grade boy voice. Like this:
"It was Tommy Pepper's twelfth birthday, and for it had unwrapped the dumbest present in the history of the entire universe: an Ace Robotroid Adventure lunch box." (Page 8)
"At the very end of the bench, Jeremy Hereford sat down. He was the smallest kid in the sixth grade. He weighed about what a cantaloupe weighs, Maybe it was the vibration of Jeremy's butt hitting the seat. Or maybe it had something to do with the quick flash of light Tommy saw at the window. But whatever it was, the Ace Robotroid Adventure lunch box tipped enough, just enough, so that it fell down, down, and clattered its tiny clatter on the wood floor." (Page 13-14)
Tommy has quite a few problems, independent of the inter-galactic artifact that landed almost literally in his lap (and the embarrassing lunch box). His mother died 8 months earlier. Now his sister doesn't talk and his father doesn't paint. And all of them are in danger of losing their beachfront home to a rapacious condo developer. His real-world struggles are not just set beside the fantasy elements, but are intermingled. For example, an inhuman enemy uses Tommy's guilt over his mother's death as a weapon against him. All of this works well, because Tommy is a strong, believable character.
The Plymouth setting is perfect for this wind-swept story, too, and much more fully realized than the planet of the Valorim.
What Came from the Stars reminded me a little bit of Madeleine L'Engle's work, particularly the Wrinkle in Time series. There's a similar interlayering of real-world and other-worldly events, and a similar reaction, in some cases, of the secondary characters to things that they don't understand. And, of course, both L'Engle and Schmidt take a lonely main character, and give him scope to grow, and do the right thing under high stakes. But Schmidt uses more high fantasy elements than L'Engle does (swords and castles and the like).
I wasn't as moved by What Came from the Stars as I was by Okay for Now (or A Wrinkle in Time, for that matter). Maybe because of the back and forth between the different worlds -- the fact that the book is neither one thing (realistic fiction) nor another (classic fantasy). But I certainly enjoyed it, and expect readers to enjoy it, too. Tommy is a character who is easy to care about, and various aspects of the other world are fascinating (particularly a concept by which paintings move).
What Came from the Stars is quite boy-friendly, with numerous references to Tom Brady-signed footballs and pickup games in the schoolyard, as well as sword-fights and, well, the chance to save a world. It's more boy-friendly than the cover and the title would indicate, I think. There's also a strong girl character (a classmate who lets Tommy get away with nothing).
What Came from the Stars is another must-purchase title for libraries, and a sure bet for Gary Schmidt's many fans. I think that this could be a nice bridge book, one that entices realistic fiction fans towards fantasy, and fantasy fans towards realistic fiction. Recommended for readers of all ages, 10 and up.
Publisher: Clarion Books (@hmhkids)
Publication Date: September 4, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher (an early finished copy)
© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).