Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos

theo1.jpg by R.L. LaFevers. When this little gem came across my desk, it looked like the dark offspring of Lemony Snicket and Edward Gorey. I admit, I was intrigued. When I read the book jacket, I was hooked. An eleven year old girl with the run of London’s Museum of Legends and Antiquities who routinely finds and destroys curses attached to ancient objects? Throw in an adventuresome mother, an annoying but clever younger brother and a quick-footed pickpocket, mix in the Cursed Object of all Cursed Objects, add a pinch of world domination and stir with a secret society and you have a delicious, mysterious tale perfect for those young readers looking for something beyond Harry Potter.

Theodosia Elizabeth Throckmorton spends her days, and often her nights, roaming the halls of the Museum where her father curates and her mother provides the artifacts from trips to Eqypt. Theo has an unusual gift — she can see the curses attached to many of the ancient objects her mother excavates for the museum. Using ancient texts and her own ingenuity, Theo routinely cleanses the objects so they can be safely viewed and handled by the museum staff. When Theo’s mother returns from a particularly long stay in Egypt, Theo is thrilled, until she sees the object most prized by her mother — the Heart of Egypt — which is drenched with evil. When the object is stolen from the museum, Theo and younger brother Henry embark on a mission to find it and return it to their mother. Along the way, however, they discover the Heart of Egypt is far more dangerous than they ever imagined, and Theo finds herself stowed away on a boat to Egypt where she must return the Heart to the tomb from which it came.

Action abounds in this wonderfully intelligent story. Theo is a pip of a character – a combination of Violet Baudelaire, Harriet the Spy and a young Amelia Peabody – who proves the point that children are far more capable and clever than adults think. The details involving Egyptian magic, and life inside the museum make the story come alive.  Theo is a well-drawn character, and drives most of the action; I wish, though, that her parents were more fleshed out, especially her mother. I imagine we’ll see more of Theo in future stories, so LaFevers has time to complete the characterizations. Highly recommended for grades 5-7.

Books Unbound

I got the new Children’s Book Council newsletter in the mail today and settled down to read it over lunch. The article by Jean Gralley, Digital Picture Books: Breaking the Paper Habit caught my attention and got me thinking. Gralley presents a very persuasive argument for the develop of digital picture books — see her sample at — and I’m curious to know what my KidLit friends out there think. I was totally caught up in Gralley’s digital example, but have to admit that I was mesmerized to the point of losing focus by the end. The possibilities for a new picture book art form in the digital world are endless, and her example combines simple digital features with two factors that mean a lot to paper readers — the reader still reads, and the reader controls the action (instead of turning a pager, the reader clicks “Go” to move forward.

However, Gralley doesn’t address another factor that I think is just as important – the physical setting and act of reading. When I was reading picture books to my kids, it was usually in bed, with me propped against the headboard and them in my arms while I held the book in front of us. That’s a closeness that you cannot fake. Is there a computer or digital reader out there that will mimic the physical attributes of a book and allow Moms & Dads to easily hold their kids while they read?  Or for that matter, allow a children’s librarian to hold a story in front of a group and read without breaking his or her arms?

Although I am completely fascinated by the concept and will watch its development, I wonder how the rise of digital picture books jibes with this article by Anastasia Goodstein on Ypulse about Kim John Payne and his research on the effects of “screen time” on ADHD children (excerpt follows):

We did a research piece into ADHD, and one of the three main requests that we made of our parents was to go screen-free for a period of four months. There was also a lessening of the schedule, lightening and simplification of the schedule, and dietary changes, simplifying diet. So it was simplifying information, simplifying diet, simplifying schedule. Sixty-eight percent of the kids — these were all diagnosed ADHD, all that stuff, none of them were on Ritalin. We asked them all of come off drugs. Sixty-eight percent of the kids went from clinically dysfunctional to functional in five months. And this is not using any drugs. When we combed through the information, what we found was that one of the single largest factors that parents reported in their weekly logbooks that made the most significant changes was going screen-free.When I’m talking about screen-free I’m not just talking about television, I’m talking about the lot [cell phones, computers, etc]. As parents went closer and closer to screen-free the kids got less and less hyperactive.

I think this says a lot about the need for time away from screens, yet is that going to be possible in the next decade? I don’t think so.