I really wanted to like The Wikkeling, a dystopian novel by Steven Arntson with illustrations by Daniela Terrazzini. The book got some good reviews, dystopian novels are one of my favorite genres, and I need some horror books to review for our library’s next cable show (during which we recommend books to our local audience). But I found so many problems with this book that I’m just left disappointed.
The author paints a picture of a future where children are constantly watched by devices, including bedroom cams. Cars honk advertisements and everyone is connected by cell phones. In school, all the children do is prepare for standardized tests, which determine if they’re fit for better jobs or have to be lowly sanitation workers. No one washes dishes anymore – everyone is extremely germ-phobic – and everyday items are used and then discarded.
Guys, this isn’t some far off future. This is now for some kids. A school environment where they’re drilled in the correct answers for standardized tests isn’t tomorrow’s nightmare. It’s a current one. I suppose you could argue that we haven’t reached the point the book suggests--where children are tested not on history, which is considered unimportant, but rather on their accurate typing skills and on district-approved vocabulary--but to the kids reading the book, that distinction will be lost. For many (students as well as teachers), school is already boring and regimented and too focused on state-wide tests.
The novel also bemoans the loss of physical, paper books. Everything, included textbooks, are becoming electronic. Well, that’s not a far-off future either. In the novel, houses that have many books, actually, are old and decrepit and may even make people sick. (uh-oh)
Finally, the bogey man of the novel, the Wikkeling, makes no sense. He is attracted to children who have old books in their houses (mainly those who can’t afford to live in the new, plastic houses, with nice flat roofs) and gives them headaches. I guess in this future, a headache is akin to some horrible disease (this might be more easily accepted if all other diseases have been eradicated, but the heroine’s grandmother dies of cancer). He touches their foreheads and they pass out. According to some “ancient” books the kids discover, though, the Wikkeling was created to “harness the power of nature toward human industry.” I don’t know what that means. Does it mean that he wants to keep industry from overwhelming nature? Or does it mean he was created to help use nature to make industry grow? I guess it’s the latter. That makes more sense in the context of the novel. For the Wikkeling is repelled by old books, old houses, and wild house cats (his mortal enemy). Unfortunately, this headache-giving monster really isn’t that scary, even when it’s chasing the kids.
This is a dystopian novel written for younger kids (ages 8 and up) – as opposed to, say, The Hunger Games – so perhaps the fact that the future isn’t that horrific is age-appropriate. But I can’t see many 8- or 9-year-olds being interested in this novel. And, unfortunately, the book lacks any kind of punch for any age. It just doesn’t live up to its potential. (I suppose you can argue, too, that I’m old and inured to bogey men, but I would disagree. I can get just as scared as the next kid.)
Finally, at the end of the novel we’re left with a bit of a disconnect: On the one hand, a growing group of people are rediscovering the joy of books (and wild house cats). Meanwhile, though, (and perhaps in a nod to the absolutely wonderful novel Feed by M.T. Anderson), new cell phones are going to be implanted directly into people’s brains. My advice: Read Feed, it’s much better.
And I’m glad my house is full of books and wild house cats.