There’s a lot more fantasy for middle grade kids (9-12 year olds than there is science fiction, so it’s a nice change when one gets to venture out among the stars, as one does in Stowaway, by John David Anderson (Walden Pond Press, August 2021). Except something always goes wrong out there…and indeed, lots is going wrong for Leo, the protagonist of the story. Right from the beginning, we know it’s going to be a rough ride–this is the first sentence: “They were playing tag when the first torpedo hit.”
“They” are Leo and his older brother, Gareth, and they are on a small ship, the Beagle, in space with their scientist father and a fairly small crew. There is a war going on between two powerful alien civilizations, and Earth, with its rich supply “ventasium,” (the element that powers space travel), has become a pawn in the conflict. When the Avkari arrived on Earth, they brought wonderous technology and promises of peace, in exchange for the ventasium. But they also brought war; Earth was attacked by other aliens, the Djarik, and one of the many casualties was Leo’s mother.
Leo’s father’s work on venasium technology required journeying into space, and three rather boring years have passed since they left Earth. But when the Djarik attack their ship, and kidnap Leo’s dad, life becomes all to exciting. The Beagle is left drifting, unable to call for help. It is a sitting duck for the pirates who find them, but when the pirates leave again, without finding much to pilfer, Leo is on board their ship, thanks to his brother’s tricking him into becoming a stowaway.
And in the next few hectic days, the pirates become almost a found family to Leo as they commit to helping him find his father, a hectic journey that takes them to the heart of Djarik territory. In the course of the various adventures, Leo comes to realize that there might not actually be a “good side” in the war….
The story of Leo’s adventures is interspersed with his memories of his life on Earth Though these interludes slow the helter-skelter pace of events, full of action, strange aliens, and future tech, they gives context and poignancy to his present day experiences, and push forward his inner journey to a more nuanced understanding of what’s happening in the galaxy. Nothing is resolved here in the first book, and in fact the stakes get raised tremendously right at the end, leaving the reader (me) wondering how on earth things can be resolved. The reader (me again) is also left very invested in Leo and the crew of the pirate ship, and anxious to see how their story plays out.
I have lots of reasons to recommend this one–family, both biological and found, at the heart of the plot, excellent sci-fi shenanigans, disability rep., and solid and vividly detailed story telling, for instance. But here’s my main reason for recommending the book enthusiastically–reading is a great way to gently nudge kids towards a deeper understanding of the real world. I’m not sure that the ten-year-old reader will think, as I did, “Wow. The Avkari are a clear parallel to European imperialists.” But perhaps that young reader will, when they learn of the attempted genocide and exploitation of native peoples here at home, make the connection and more critically reflect on our own past in the same way that Leo has to rethink his future Earth’s recent history.