I think The Wells Bequest by Polly Shulman (2013, 248 pages) is a good book, but I did not have a good time reading it. There are many clever aspects to it, but the cleverness did not add up to deliver the emotional impact that I seek from novels.
Leo never imagined that time travel might really be possible, or that the objects in H. G. Wells’ science fiction novels might actually exist. And when a miniature time machine appears in Leo’s bedroom, he has no idea who the tiny, beautiful girl is riding it. But in the few moments before it vanishes, returning to wherever—and whenever—it came from, he recognizes the other tiny rider: himself!
His search for the time machine, the girl, and his fate leads him to the New-York Circulating Material Repository, a magical library that lends out objects instead of books. Hidden away in the Repository basement is the Wells Bequest, a secret collection of powerful objects straight out of classic science fiction novels: robots, rockets, submarines, a shrink ray—and one very famous time machine. And when Leo’s adventure of a lifetime suddenly turns deadly, he must attempt a journey to 1895 to warn real-life scientist Nikola Tesla about a dangerous invention. A race for time is on!
This is “a companion book” to The Grimm Legacy (2011), although you do not have to read one to understand the other. I love the concept of a library of objects, which is the central setting of this book. This was a clever idea that did really work for me, and as described by the author I could easily picture, especially as I have recently read of libraries’ efforts to diversify and lend to the public more things. Leo is doing research on robots and gets to examine robots from different time periods at the Repository. When Leo goes to the Repository, he meets Jaya, the girl whose miniature version from the future visited his bedroom. He gets an immediate crush on her, and of course she undertakes an adventure with him.( I say of course because he saw them together so he knew it was going to work out.)
I couldn’t picture the two main characters because I couldn’t tell how old they were. I pegged the boy as about 12, but then the girl who was supposed to be his peer spoke like she was 21. However, I think it said in the text that they were in high school. Nor did I buy the dialogue, as I’ve never met a high schooler as witty and self-assured when flirting as was Jaya.
I did not like all the magical things that got thrown into the story but were not essential to the plot such as a changing wall mural, and a carved animal head chair leg that winks, I just prefer stories where the magic is limited and the protagonists have to make the most of it. But other readers may find this delightful.
I think there were references to several famous science fiction tales that I did not pick up on. By the end it was tedium, slogging through all the details about various sci-fi machines, but that may be exactly the reason real science fiction buffs might love this story.
See Polly Shulman’s website here. Read more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday book reviews at Shannon Messenger’s blog here.
I find believable voice in MG a tough one to master – making sure your young protagonist doesn’t sound like your much older aunt or uncle. Love the premise of this story though.
I think you make a good point when you say science fiction buffs might be the right audience for this. Thanks for the review.
I really like the premise from how you described it, especially the library of magical elements and Tesla. I don’t like it when the character’s age is not clear from the dialogue or thoughts.
It’s too bad this book didn’t live up to its promise. The cover is fantastic!
I remember wanting to read this book so bad when I saw ARC reviews. But then I got distracted by other shiny books. I might still give it a try and grab a copy from the library. Thanks for the honest review. I ran into similar issues with another time travel MG book last year.