Review of the Day: Reality Leak
Reality Leak by Joni Sensel, illustrated by Christian Slade. Henry Holt and Company. $16.95.
Dangers abound in the world of children’s literature. The wary author, ear cocked to the wind, nose sniffing about for trouble, must be vigilant every step of the way. And when an author attempts their very first middle grade novel for children, the dangers are likely to increase tenfold. So ran my line of reasoning as I idly picked up and perused Joni Sensel’s, “Reality Leak”. The book, let us face it, has a charming cover design but how fares the material inside? I was prepared to be disappointed. I was, instead, truly delighted. Living up to its illustrations (and then some) Ms. Sensel brings child readers a book that wants nothing more than to entertain and be entertaining in the process. Mission, as you will see, most certainly accomplished.
It was a summer day like any other for eleven-year-old Bryan Zilcher. He was just sitting on the side of the highway in an attempt to sell some LemonMoo (lemon flavored milk of his own invention) when out of the back of a semi flies a wooden crate bearing the label, “WARNING: DO NOT LICK.” From this box emerges none other than Archibald Keen, a white-suited stick of a man who describes himself as the president of Acme, Inc. Without further ado Mr. Keen is off, purchasing the local defunct factory and hiring all the residents as employees without going into such dull details as what it is they’re actually going to MAKE when working for him. Bryan’s suspicious, and with good reason. It seems that strange things are happening all the time now. Notes appear out of toasters. Little girls blow bubbles in the shapes of letters. Trains appear to be running in a town where there are no tracks. Now it’s up to Bryan and his friend Spot (a girl who thinks she’s a canine) to investigate the real story behind Acme, Inc. and find out whether or not Mr. Keen’s intentions are noble or nefarious.
I referred vaguely to dangers associated with first time middle grade authors, and for a second there I was desperately afraid that “Reality Leak” would fall prey to one of the biggest mistakes a writer can make. When an author starts haphazardly throwing all the cool stuff they can think of into a story so as to make it kid friendly, they usually end up creating a gawdawful mess instead. Warily I scanned the pages of “Reality Leak” for any hint of undeserved goofiness and at first, to my chagrin, it looked like Sensel was doing just that. For a chapter or two it seemed that she’d given in to her worst whims and created ridiculous stuff without rhyme or reason. Really, the girl that thinks that she’s a dog seemed a clear indication of out-of-the-blue nuttiness. Then I read a little further and everything began to fall neatly into place. If there’s no rhyme or reason that’s because the book demands a complete and utter lack of it. Keep reading and everything begins to even out. The story’s plot has a well-thought out beginning, middle, and end and the arc of the tale melds beautifully. Even Mr. Keen (a worthy successor to Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka if ever there was one) with his quirks and potentially malevolent actions makes sense within the context of the writing. Just as you feel Sensel might plunge you off the deep end of cohesive storytelling never to return, she reels you back in so skillfully that you begin to wonder if she wasn’t playing with you intentionally all along.
The author seemingly draws her nutty occurrences from a host of different sources. At one point our heroes draw a black hole on the wall only to find a train is approaching them from inside that space they just drew. This reminded me of an old Sesame Street episode with some guys putting two sides of a picture of a hole together and then facing the train that approaches from within the finished image. Sensel also looks to old Warner Brothers cartoons as well as adding in some subtle flourishes that are entirely her own. Black and white rainbows, winking waffles, teabags that turn into mice, etc.
Now Sensel does attempt to bring in some serious family matter into this otherwise silly tale, and in a way I felt that this was unnecessary. In the story, Bryan’s mother left the family a couple years ago and since that time his dad has taken up with Tripper, the smart woman who runs the Post Office. And while Bryan doesn’t seriously mind Tripper, he begins to chafe when she starts setting understandable limits for him when his dad fails to. The problem is that this storyline doesn’t gel as nicely as it might. References to Bryan’s mother keep cropping up in spite of the fact that she doesn’t have any bearing on the story at hand and the boy seemingly doesn’t think of her all that often anyway. It’s not an intrusive element to the book, but it did come off as a little unnecessary at times, and that’s too bad.
Now it is a fact of nature that authors are not always given the illustrators they so richly deserve. First time authors of novels in particular tend to get the scrapings off the bottom of the barrel time and time again, so it’s just a pure pleasure to see Ms. Sensel place her baby in the competent hands of illustrator Christian Slade. Mr. Slade, a former Disney animator, has yet to make a permanent mark in the world of children’s literature. “Reality Leak” offers him, then, a remarkable start. Slade knows how to balance the cartoonish elements of this story with just the right amount of reality. I was particularly impressed with his characterization of the mysterious Archibald Keen. Here we have a fellow who is either good or bad, and it’s impossible to say whether he falls too far one way or another for most of the book. When he smiles the story says that, “That grin had too many teeth. It made the stranger look a bit like a jack-o’-lantern.” Later in the book Slade shows you what the author meant, but at the same time he has to be careful and make it impossible to say if the guy is malevolent or simply weird. The smile does indeed have too many teeth, but the eyes are almost sympathetic in spite of the bushy eyebrows above them. There aren’t an overwhelming amount of pen-and-ink illustrations in this book, but their occasional appearances in this story do complement the plot rather magnificently, and for this I am glad.
Kids who may enjoy this book include those youngsters in love with Blue Balliett’s, “Chasing Vermeer” series. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with Balliett as an author, personally. Her books always have characters idly walking along as clues go out of their way to trip them up. Sensel’s book, in contrast, has some lively child heroes who find peculiar clues and secret messages after a great deal of hard work. Bryan and Spot are active protagonists. He, for example, keeps a double-cased pillow full of files on his bed in lieu of a computer. When something weird happens he’s sure to write it down pronto rather than let actions just happen to him. But if you can lead kids into reading this story by comparing it to Ms. Balliett's work, all power to you.
I was a little disappointed to find that there have been blurbs of this book that give away the mystery Bryan and Spot are trying so desperately to uncover. Hopefully this will lessen as the book gains in popularity. As it stands, I wouldn’t hesitate to place this in the grubby hands of any grubby reader that happens to waltz into my library looking for a book that is fun and funny to boot. In spite of the record number of children’s book publications that climb with every fiscal year, few of the titles out there have as clear a sense of lighthearted glee as Joni Sensel’s, “Reality Leak”. Never disappointing and always surprising.
Notes On the Cover: Chalk another point up for Henry Holt & Co. As I mentioned before, authors aren’t always blessed when it comes to accompanying artists. And though I’ve never seen so much as a flicker of Christian Slade’s work before, this man has depth, kid-friendly appeal, and raw unvarnished talent. Plus as his website shows, he also sports an affection for corgis challenged only by the great Tasha Tudor herself. I’m looking forward to his Korgi graphic novel, whenever it happens to come out. But I digress… the cover of THIS book is superb. It exerts its influence on every casual observer, making it near impossible not to make this the very next book in their To Be Read pile. Great on every level.