Steel Trapp: The Challenge, by Ridley Pearson, is a fast-paced, technologically savvy book that I think will please fans of the Alex Rider and Young James Bond books. Fourteen-year-old Steven Trapp is called Steel because of his photographic memory (as in, mind like a Steel Trapp). Even his mother calls him Steel. As the book begins, Steel and his mother are taking the train cross-country, so that Steel can compete in the National Science Challenge in Washington, DC. While on the train, Steel's photographic memory gets him into trouble. He notices something that he shouldn't, and an attempt to help goes disastrously wrong. Before he quite knows what's happening, he's on the loose in DC, partnered with a girl who is almost as smart as he is, and being chased by bad guys, federal agents, and his parents.
Both Steel and his friend Kaileigh invent cool gadgets and solve real-life puzzles that baffle the adults. They are resourceful and creative. Each has a strong compulsion to do the right thing, though they do bend rules along the way. They are, in short, the perfect protagonists for a book in this genre. I enjoyed reading about them.
Steel he has some interpersonal awkwardness that keeps him from being annoyingly perfect. For example, I enjoyed this description, from the scene in which he meets Kaileigh:
"Winded, Steel blurted out at her, which was pretty much the way he talked, winded or not. Talking with anyone other than his mom and dad, his mouth became a bottleneck, an impediment to the speed at which his mind worked. The faster he spoke, the fewer words piled up waiting to get out, so he spoke very fast." (Page 19)
And as for Kaileigh - she rocks! I do, however, have a quibble about this book that kept me from completely enjoying it. There were simply too many convenient coincidences. For example, at one point, while watching Steel and Kaileigh are watching the science challenge on a monitor, someone accidentally turns the channel. And in that minute, the television happens to display someone central to the mystery that Steel is trying to solve (and who he recognizes, of course, because of his perfect memory). And that's just one example among many. I can't share the others without giving too much away.
Now, I can suspend belief to read about a brilliant kid with a photographic memory who gets caught up in a federal investigation. I'm ok with accepting the kids being able to solve puzzles before the adults - that's part of the fun in reading this type of book. But this book had just too many coincidences that made things easier for the kids, and too many disparate elements that turned out to be connected. I'm a fan of Ridley Pearson's adult mysteries , and I don't recall noticing this as a general tendency of his. So my question is: do kids enjoy this sort of thing? Is it some kind of inside joke, "let's see how far we can push this?". Is this a desirable attribute of the book, for a middle school audience? Or is Pearson talking down to his readers?
I still think Steel Trapp: The Challenge is a fun book. I will probably read whatever the next book is that comes out. I think that there's a need for books like this, with engaging plots, interesting technology, and characters that the reader cares about. But personally, I'll be looking in the next title for a plot that doesn't rely quite so much on serendipity.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.