Thursday, November 10, 2005

The King in the Window

I highly recommend Adam Gopnik's new novel for children, The King in the Window.

The King in the Window is perfect for intelligent middle-grade readers (8-12) who love adventure and fantasy. It is a complex tale involving multiple worlds--worlds populated by mirrors, water and ice, window wraiths, shadows and other such liminal creatures and objects.

Oliver Parker is a twelve-year-old boy living a fairly normal life as an American boy in Paris. He attends a French school and struggles with his courses, particularly rhetoric. Accidentally called as the "King in the Window," he visits Versailles and the window wraiths, a collection of wonderful French classics including Molière, Racine, and Richelieu. Oliver discovers he has been called to defeat "The One with None" otherwise known as "The Master of the Mirrors." Confused by his charge and the greats' explanation of it, Oliver seeks the help of the wisest person he knows, Mrs. Lucy Pearson, an old woman, great wit, and author of books on the Grand Siècle.

Amazing adventures ensue, adventures cloaked in riddle and mystery. Oliver is joined in his quest by an American computer fiend named Charlie Gronek and the mysterious and beautiful neighbor girl, Neige.

Oliver is a character who grows on you over the course of reading The King in the Window. He begins as a blank, unthinking character who is forced to make intellectual and imaginative leaps to solve the problem set before him. Lucy Pearson is a marvel of a character and one with the best lines in the book. The first four chapters of the book are kind of slow (some editorial brutality would have been nice here) and focus way too much on Oliver's parents, but if you persevere you will be greatly rewarded.

Gopnik's writing is just stunning in places, particularly when Lucy Pearson speaks. For example, Mrs. Pearson explains to Oliver, "If you have a soul, champagne makes it more soulful; if you don't have one, a latte gives you the illusion you do. You may write that down." During their first meeting, Lucy Pearson tells Oliver what is essentially the moral (and by writing moral I do not mean The King in the Window is a morality tale) of the book:

  • "Craft, strategy, cunning, tactics : thought. That is all that allows good to triumph. Renounce reason and you're lost. Rely on your 'inner sense,' and you will make a mess of everything. Thinking is your only hope. Start thinking now and never stop. Outwit the evil doer! Learn to tell the difference between sound argument and slippery rhetoric. Discriminate between the Received Idea and the Enduring Truth; between the odd and the strange; the selfish and the self-centered; the childish and the child-like; between metaphors and ironies, riddles and paradoxes. Think, and if you can't think, read. And if you can't read--why then think some more! Discriminate, adjudicate, split hairs, dispute priorities, but think, think! It is your only hope."

If a book is to have a message, that's a pretty good one.