Chronal Engine by Greg Leitch Smith. Clarion Books, March 2012
UPDATE: Since publishing this review Chronal Engine has been named as a Junior Library Guild selection!! Congratulations to Greg!
It is always a joy to have a new book that no one knows about yet to share with the students and librarians. I've been in that happy position this week as I've subbed in my district's libraries. The short version of my book talk is: teens are forced back to the Cretaceous era on a rescue mission. This is no Land Before Time with cuddly, roly-poly baby dinos. These dinosaurs are looking for their next meal and would greatly enjoy a snack delivered from the twenty-first century.
Soon-to-be-eighth-grader Max and his older twin siblings Emma and Kyle are resigned to spending the summer with their grandfather at his ranch while their mother is away on a dinosaur dig in China. Soon after they arrive disaster strikes and Max must determine if the story of his great-great grandfather's Chronal Engine is true and if it really is capable of moving them back in time. The reader can easily believe in the machine's abilities as Smith draws on his electrical engineering background to describe the electronics involved. It may be imaginary but is sounds technically feasible..
Of course there are dinosaurs, big dinosaurs, little dinosaurs, baby dinosaurs, flying dinosaurs and ginormous alligators. The action is fast paced and gripping as the rescue party discovers they are no match for the sheer mass of these animals, much less their claws and teeth. I admit to some audible gasps and "Oh NOs" while I was reading. OK, I may have even shrieked once.
Humorous shout-outs to Star Trek and Star Wars will tickle fans. For Texans, there are landmarks, real and imagined, that evoke the Lone Star State.
Smith demonstrated in his first book, Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo that he has a fine ear for youthful dialog and humor. (Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo is an excellent audiobook. The performers who read the story are pitch perfect which is a tribute to Smith's writing. I highly recommend it.)
Young paleontologists will find much to enjoy as prehistory facts and knowledge weave naturally into Max's thoughts and comments.
The book is also enhanced with full page black and white illustrations by Blake Henry. His style gives the story the feel of a graphic novel. Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series saw a return to the illustrated adventure novel which works with science fiction stories like these. When storytelling with larger than life creatures it helps to show their size and weight. Here, the heroes' Volkswagen zooms beneath the legs and tail of a sauropod and a T-Rex turns and stares menacingly into the reader's eyes.
Although the ages of the characters are eighth grade and high school, this book will also work very well with upper elementary school readers. Readers of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and Red Pyramid series will be natural sells for this title. I would love to see the character Brick Heck (from the television series The Middle) reading this book. I wonder how difficult it is to feature a non Hyperion title on that ABC network program?
Smith adds an "Author's Note" which cites many of his resources and reviews his efforts to accurately seat his story in current paleontology research. Personally, I greatly enjoyed his discussion of the "Robinsonade" survival genre (Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, Gulliver, etc.) and how it has been a staple in literarture, movies and television. Chronal Engine fits perfectly into this tradition. I am hopeful that there will be additional books to follow. There are many points in the story to continue and Smith would have time to develop and deepen his characters. The family is dealing with the loss of their father in Afghanistan. There is much here to explore besides another place and time.
Check out the interview with Greg Leitich Smith at cynsations
There is also a reading/activity kit , including an extensive Dinosaur Word Search at GregLeitichSmith.com