I had to stay in today for a parcel for Thumbs and I’ve been in a funk. It’s been cold and overcast, raining on and off all day – a perfect day therefore for reading under a blanket or three by the window (rather than cleaning, hoovering, cooking, sorting, sewing or any other ‘–ing’ that sounds like work).
I read the Wondla books first a couple of years ago. They’re a children’s sci-fi trilogy, magically, wonderfully, beautifully illustrated by the author Tony DiTerlizzi, and I read them when I was feeling a bit blue – children’s books are a go-to when you feel that way, no? Must be something about the way they’re told, nothing can ever go so wrong that it can’t be fixed in a kid’s book. But please don’t dismiss Wondla because it’s primary audience is junior, this is a great scifi romp and in the same way that Hayao Miyasaki’s films have more to them than their animated exteriors might suggest, so too does Wondla have far more to offer. They are also the most successfully illustrated books I’ve ever read, the gorgeous limited-palate artwork and the story being two halves of a whole – each enhances your enjoyment of the other.
It’s difficult not to give all the good stuff away, but roughly speaking Wondla is the story of 12-year-old Eva Nine’s journey from her secluded underground Sanctuary into the wider world above of Orbona. It’s the story of Eva finding out who she is, and finding a place for herself in that world. It’s by no means as simple as all that, however. There are power-crazed bad guys, fantastical alien beasts, carnivorous plant life, giant insects, robots, clones, lost cities, an alien ark, walking trees, spaceships… oh, and tech to die for. Sanctuary, where Eva’s story begins, is awesome and the technology that has protected and sustained Eva as she’s grown up owes something to both Star Trek (the Omnipod, the holo-room and Rovender’s vocal transcoder) and Star Wars (mostly Muthr, but also the Boomrod and the Bijou and Goldfish later on in the books). When she emerges from Sanctuary after it’s ripped apart by an alien marauder (still not giving anything away – that’s right there in the blurb) we also learn about her oh-my-god-when-will-we-get-these??? smart clothes: the jackvest, utilitunic and sneakboots that keep her warm and dry and monitor her health, and have been designed to break down into medical aids, like when Eva uses the toe-cap of her boot and the cuff of her tunic to make a splint for her broken fingers … now see, isn’t that already the coolest thing ever?
As Eva discovers the world above so do we, and maybe we work some things out a bit quicker than she does (what are those mysterious ruins for instance? And what happened to Earth?), but that’s only because she’s been in a tech-cave her whole life, poor kid, prepared for a world she is no longer on. This new world is a masterpiece, fully-realised, splendid in its scale and variety, and completely satisfying. Eva encounters plants, giant insects and flocks of birds that all try to eat her, but she also meets with Rovender Kitt and with Otto who accompany her throughout most of the book and become a part of the family she’s never had. She learns to live within this challenging environment, and the planet’s character, its terrain, its ruins, its forests, are all as important to the story as any of the other protagonists.
I mentioned Miyasaki before and the Wondla books have a lot in common with his 1984 film Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind – an alien world, a planet trying to right itself, a brave female protagonist (who just maybe has a whiff of prophecy about her). The first book is all about Eva’s search for other humans, and she meets plenty of the planet’s other inhabitants while she travels. They’re a mixed bag, some trustworthy, some rather less so (I liked this, that if an individual turned out to be bad or misguided it was through personal choice, not just their nature as aliens), and all brilliantly drawn, both in words and pictures. As in Nausicaa the one thing that marks Eva Nine out as hero material is her desire to understand both the people and the creatures she meets and the situations she finds herself in. And she only fulfils her role of uniting the old world of humanity and the new alien world because of this understanding.
And then there is Time. Time is palpable throughout this trilogy. At the beginning of the story so much time has already passed, Eva is one of the last of her kind; the very reason for Eva’s existence is time and humanity’s struggle with, and fear of, it (now I really am giving things away). As Eva learns more about the world we (and she) discover just where her story sits in time thanks to the Royal Museum at Solas, and the epilogues at the very end of the trilogy take us onwards in time, far into the future. If a story is a pattern, some more pleasing than others, then the pattern made by this story pleased me greatly – I liked the feeling of drawing out from Eva at the end, and then out again, like a longshot at the end of a movie that says ‘there, we can leave them now, everything will be alright’.
After deciding I was going to write something about Wondla, R and I took a look the other day at scifi for children. Or rather, we searched for scifi for kids on the junior shelves and found only five books. Just five that met our scifi criteria (i.e. science is fundamental to the story, not applied as a coating; actual science, not chocolate aliens; and not time travel using a glowing *magic* rock rather than an actual time machine or something else that makes a bit more sense). Wondla feels pretty special to me, and after our search I’m not inclined to change my mind. There were quite a few books where aliens infiltrated schools for comedic shenanigans, and I’m not saying these don’t have their place, I’m really not, I just would like to see more adventures like Wondla, where there’s a bit of weight to the story, and … well … maybe, actually, I wouldn’t like to see more of that kind of thing, because then Wondla wouldn’t be quite as special as it is. But I do feel there’s a lack there. As soon as you move into the Teen area there’s a whole section dedicated to scifi (and distinct from the fantasy books too), so what happens to the brain between the ages of, say, ten and thirteen that suddenly scifi becomes a thing? Seriously, if anyone has any answers I’d love to know.