Wednesday, October 10, 2007

MIDDLEWORLD: Vermont Authors Launch a New Adventure, in a New Middle-Grade Imprint

Jon and Pamela Voelkel left a powerful advertising career in England to settle in rural Norwich, Vermont, where they built a home, welcomed the (surprise) arrival of their third child, and made the ultimate career switch: They started writing for “young adults.”

Their adventure novel “Middleworld” became available at the start of October, through a publishing house called Smith & Kraus (S & K), a mostly theater-related publisher. Its owners were persuaded by their son Peter Kraus, who discovered the manuscript – and insisted that his parents take it seriously. Now, with a New York City launch and an active book tour underway, it looks like Peter’s discovery is a hot new success within the firms fresh middle-grade imprint, Smith & Sons.

Every middle-grade book these days gets compared to the Harry Potter series, and “Middleworld” has already been called “Harry Potter meets the Maya.” And the plots have in common magic, a teenage boy, and plenty of battle scenes. But there are more differences than similarities, and the differences make this an exciting fresh book.

Max Murphy is fourteen. An expert on computer games and on resenting his mostly absent archaeologist parents, he’s spoiled, self-centered, and angry. That’s a tough combination to identify with, and it makes for a rough opening to the book. But there’s so much action that there’s little time for doubts, from either Max or the reader.

Because when Max’s parents suddenly dump him from their summer vacation plans and fly off to the fictional country of San Xavier, chasing down Maya relics and rituals, the family’s mysterious housekeeper soon tells Max that “they” need him down there, handing him an air ticket and his passport. Next thing you know, he’s landing in Latin America, discovering his Uncle Ted is operating a criminal trade in artifacts, and being locked into and out of places by an ominous set of adults who seem much more angry, and far more dangerous, than Max.

You could say it’s lucky for Max that he finds a companion in his escape from a murderous Spaniard and his uncle’s punitive ambitions – a modern Maya teen, Lola. But actually it’s not luck: It’s courage, of a kind that Max hasn’t shown outside his computer games before. He chases Lola through a jungle, learns to eat strange food (even a jungle rodent), argues with a shaman, and discovers way more than is healthy to know about some artifacts called the Jaguar Stones that may be the key to whether the world turns darker and deadly or has some hope.

Halfway through “Middleworld” – named for what the Maya call life on earth, caught between an evil underworld and the land of the gods – Max is no longer identifying with his past: “It was time to take sides. As long as he kept comparing San Xavier to Boston, he was no better than one of these tourists. Like it or not, the jungle was his only home right now … His parents were out there somewhere and until he found them he wasn’t going to think about his old life. … he could be zooming up the Monkey River with the wind in his hair.”

Max’s emerging stubborn bravery and persistent problem solving win him friends who are smart and knowledgeable about the Maya and their gods and leaders, who pose a huge threat to the universe, and especially to Max and Lola. Soon he’s a much more likeable kid. But there’s plenty of unfinished business even when he’s done his best, and “Middleworld” is only Book One of the trilogy titled “The Jaguar Stones.” Coming next: Book Two, El Castillo (Max and Lola track their enemies to Spain), and Book Three: The Return of the Hero Twins (racing from the end of the world on Maya terms, to 21st-century Boston).

The Voelkels have a 21st-century approach to presenting their adventure: Their web site,, offers details about the book and its authors, as well as adventures in learning about the Maya (six million of them alive today) and their culture. In addition, the authors offer Ancient Maya workshops and activities, and an audio-visual presentation with exotic refreshments, jungle plants, and more.

So it’s not Harry Potter and the Maya; it’s a far different adventure, tied to modern dreams as well as mythic conflicts. I’d compare it more closely to Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” or even to “Gulliver’s Travels,” and to the struggles and risks of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series – but with more hope and better results for Max and Lola.

And that's also one of the gifts of the end of the Harry Potter series: There's room for a lot of fresh new novels to erupt this year, and here's a good one to sample.

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