We’ve all heard that age-old adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” Yet, as teachers and library media specialists, we do that every day. No educator has time to read all books in their collection. So, when recommending a book to a student, we rely on the cover to tell us about the content of the book. Sometimes we read the first chapter or two in an effort to learn the reading level and tone of the book under consideration. Neither of these useful strategies pays dividends when considering Life on Mars, popular young-adult author Jennifer Brown’s first foray into the tween reading genre. Unfortunately, we’re left with a tremendously uneven book that neither the author nor the publisher seems to believe in. That’s really a shame, because the makings for a good book are definitely here.
Twelve-year-old Arcturus “Arty” Chambers’ life revolves around astronomy. His father works at the local university observatory, and Arty spends his nights on the rooftop looking at the stars while faithfully attempting to send a message to Mars using a flashlight and a series of mirrors. He’s a likable young man – intelligent and sensible, with a strong command of knowledge of the heavens. Early in the book, Arty’s dad loses his job, and accepts a new one – working on computers in Las Vegas (where presumably the casino lights hamper any attempt to see the stars.) Naturally, Arty doesn’t want to move and leave behind his friends and his attempt to communicate with the Martians.
A seemingly minor plot element involves a mysterious older man who moves in next door. Each night he carries a rucksack into the woods, and returns the next morning. Arty and his friends name him Mr. Death. They are sure he’s a serial killer, a zombie, or both.
That’s about all that happens in the first 60 pages – a few plot events, and lots of gross-out humor and grade-school silliness. Boogers, armpits, dog pee, a bat’s butt, and lint-covered toothpicks dug-out of pockets. Arty will soon be in 7th grade, and this patter is typical for 3rd or 4th graders. I was very close to stopping this book, and tossing it in the give-away pile.
Then, through a comically unlikely series of events, Arty is sent to spend the night with Mr. Death. He learns that his mysterious neighbor is a retired astronaut and space enthusiast – albeit a tremendously grumpy one. Still, the two bond over their love of space. Slowly the old gentleman reveals his life’s details, his regrets, and eventually his terminal illness. As Arty and his family leave town, Arty begins to understand all that we leave behind in life. Gone are the wise-cracks and the page-long musing on all things gross and grimy. We’ve got a story here, with real people and real issues. Much to my surprise, this turned into one of those books that I read slowly as it ended. I didn’t want to miss a thing.
So, what gives? Why write the first 60 pages of an otherwise rewarding tween read for the Wimpy Kid crowd? One could argue that the change in tone reflects Arty’s maturity, but that’s not it. Arty still struggles with an over-active imagination, and his personality isn’t dampened at all as the story progresses. It’s just a literary whiplash from Captain Underpants to Caroline B. Cooney.
And now that you know the story, take a look at the cover. An astronaut. An alien. A satellite. As a reader, I would expect a book about people living on Mars, encountering Martians (especially considering the title.) Of course, an author typically has little input on cover design or promotion. But if you already have this book in your collection, have you been promoting it properly?
Jennifer Brown is very successful at writing for the older teen audience. In my opinion, she under-estimates the tween audience by inserting page after page of lowbrow humor. I would love to read more tween books from her, without the elementary silliness. In Life on Mars, the sights were set too low, and the author hit the target.