Ron Costello,
The Junto: Racing to the Bell
(Gold Sun, 2009)

Aimed at young readers, probably 10 to 15, this is a fantasy-adventure-suspense novel that includes terrorist plots, animals, telepathy and life in the poorer parts of Philadelphia.

The protagonist, Jamil Jamil, is an African-American boy, about 11, who is a bit short, a bit chubby, a moderately good student and sometimes bullied by peers. His mother has a serious substance abuse problem, but his grandmother is the rock in his life. He lives in a poor area of Philadelphia and attends a charter school. Jamil Jamil also has inherited the very rare ability to telepathically communicate with animals.

The chapters alternate between Jamil Jamil's life and a new plot by Osama bin Laden to detonate a "dirty bomb" at the Liberty Bell. The details of the plot are thorough, and a bit frightening.

What do the storylines have to do with one another? I will not divulge too much, but Jamil Jamil, the animals he befriends and his grandmother all end up trying to counter the terrorists.

This is a very fast-paced, easy-to-read story, with short chapters, few typographical errors, well-developed and interesting characters (human and animal) and an ambitious, imaginative premise. It also talks about important contemporary issues: school violence, terrorism, the treatment of animals in captivity, the problems in inner-city schools. I do not know if the author is from Philadelphia, but he clearly knows the city well, and he cares about it and its people. There is a lot of heart in this book.

What do I find less appealing? The line between "ambitious" and "far-fetched" is a fine one, and this story bangs right up against it. Some kids will love its creative flair and extreme imaginatively, but others, along with many adults, might feel it goes too far.

Even as the imaginative premise pushes the envelop, so does the social commentary aspect, in my view. To Kill a Mockingbird shone a bright and glaring light on racism, but did not feel like an anti-racism public service announcement. The Junto: Racing to the Bell occasionally feels like a commercial for the concept of charter schools, a speech on the evils of slavery and past injustices, commentary on the ineptitude of the United States government and, at the end, a zoo-reform proposal. Of course, social commentary has a place in fiction, but this book sometimes loses track of the story while going off on a tangent that does not fit the story completely. I am talking about a matter of degree.

I am not sure about the age-range for this book. There are a lot of big concepts here to chew on, and some of them are scary. I can see some children becoming highly anxious about terrorism after reading this. Of course, anxious is better than complacent when it comes to true threats, but there are few things that children can do to stave off terrorism. An equally-scary and scathing adult book should be read by some politicians.

I can also see angry, disenfranchised youth siding with the terrorists in this story. The backgrounds of the terrorists in this book, all non-Arabs, will resonate with some kids with traumatic backgrounds. I work with children like that, and I know that some would end up cheering for the "evil ones." Now, there is a sad thought.

Those are my major concerns, but there were a few minor points. Uranium and Caesium are used as if they were two names for the same thing, and they are separate elements. When Jamil Jamil and his friend, Bette, are trying to get to the Liberty Bell to stymie the terrorists, they are temporarily blocked by police cars, but are there two cars or three? Also, where did Jabari the gorilla get the sign he uses to wave around?

Despite those issues, I found this to be a compelling reading experience. I would be cautious to recommend it widely, but would suggest it as a book that a parent and child could read together, or concurrently, with ample breaks for discussion.

review by
Chris McCallister

30 January 2010

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