I never read much fiction for young adults, or teens as we used to be called when not being called something less savoury. Even when I was technically age-appropriate for that genre it was never something I was particularly interested in. First of all, the topics never seemed that interesting – it was mostly young love and high-school garbage that seemed to be lived by people from another planet.
Nobody I knew talked like or acted like the people in these books, or even more to the point, cared about the things these characters seemed to think mattered. How people could live in our world and be so clueless as to what was going on around them socially and politically was beyond me. Little did I know, until I was much older, that I was a freak – but that's another story.
At the time, as far as I was concerned, it just meant that nobody except adults were writing anything that interested me. It was either that or reading fantasy stories — like the books of Alan Gardner or Susan Cooper — written for children. There seemed to be no middle ground, nothing in between. Well, thirty years too late I've finally stumbled on a couple of books that would have fit the bill perfectly.
Land Of The Mammoths and Pirates, Bats, and Dragons by Mike Davis, published by Perceval Press, are giant strides in the right direction of writing books for a youth audience that have more on their minds than what they're going to wear to the prom. That they are both subtitled "A Science Adventure" is the first clue that they are not your standard youth fare, and reading them only confirms it.
Both stories feature three young adults who have exceptional skills, but not outside the realm of reason. In other words, while they are intelligent and gifted in their fields of study their abilities don't make them unrecognizable as teenagers. They still have all the characteristics of teenagers – the cock-sure attitude that they know what they are doing and no one else does; convinced of their immortality; and suffering from foot in mouth disease.
Jack and Connor are Irish Americans who live in Ireland, while Julia is a New Yorker and proud of it. In both novels the three protagonists travel to parts of the world that are little known to people of any age in our society: Greenland in book one, and the Arab island Socotra in the Arabian Sea, at the mouth of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Yemen, for book two.
The three young people are brought together in the first book through a scientific competition sponsored by the United Nations that sends the winners to Greenland to assist in research being already conducted on the dwindling herds of reindeer of the island. While it may seem a happy coincidence that brothers Jack and Connor were both selected, it turns out it's their areas of study that brought them to the attention of their team leader.
While Jack's fascination with micro technology has led him to create the world's lightest manned aircraft – it can be collapsed down to the size of a canoe and weighs about as much – Connor has made a study of mammoths, and his knowledge is equal to that of any doctorial student. They soon find out that the reindeer are not to be the true focus of their project and it's their unique specializations that are really what are in demand.
Part Lost World, part real lessons in the delicate nature of isolated ecosystems (the common cold can wipe out whole communities of people and animals if they've never been exposed to it), Land Of The Lost Mammoths is a great combination of adventure story, scientific education, and history lesson. Not only do the young heroes and we have an exciting time of it, Mr. Davis does an excellent job of incorporating the legends and history of Greenland into the story.
While both of the books deal with the issue of preserving delicate ecosystems, Pirates, Bats, And Dragons casts a little wider net politically. You can't travel to the Middle East without coming under the watchful glare of people who love to stick their noses into others' business. The fact that Jack is an expert in micro-radio controlled technology and that he's an avowed pacifist marks him in some minds as suspect from the start. But showing up where the CIA has just made a horrible mess of things makes him look awfully attractive as a scapegoat to certain parties.
Once again they are working under the auspices of the U.N., only this time there is no hidden agenda on the part of their team leader. They are there to use their skills to help explore the extensive cave system on the island of Socotra. Julia's skills as a large animal specialist and zoologist come to the fore, as they have to figure out the truth behind the legends of dragons living in the cave system.
Jack's job is to utilize a new invention of his, radio controlled bats with built-in cameras that are solar- and battery-powered and controlled by microwaves. They can act as scouts for the explorers before they enter into the cave systems themselves. Connor will be leading the way into the caves as he has proven himself to be a cliff climber and spelunker of some skill.
Not only do the trio have to face any dangers that the fauna of the island may have to present, there are also modern day pirates (not cute ones like Johnny Depp either) and the CIA to be contended with. Unlike most books aimed at the young adult market, it does not adhere to the party line of my country right or wrong. In fact, the enemy ends up being constituted in the policies of the current administration and the in lengths they will go to in tracking down terrorists and covering their asses when things go wrong.
The three teenagers, their team leader, and their local guides all come within a whisker of being "disappeared" or declared suspected terrorists because an enemy is needed and they will fit the bill. It doesn't hurt that their team leader, although an American citizen, is of Palestinian birth, and that the Patriot Act lets anybody be locked up without trial or charges being made. But they are saved by Jack's ability to alert the media, who show up and make enough fuss that the State Department has to intervene.
As with the first book, Mr. Davis — in addition to taking jabs at American policy — does a good job of blending the scientific information and with the adventure story. Nothing ever seems jarring or out of place and each little piece fits together with the neatness of a jigsaw puzzle. While on occasion both books might drift toward feeling like "Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys Take on the World", those times are too few to distract from the overall quality of the books and the storytelling.
It's not often that young people are given a perspective on the world that is different from the one that is presented in the mainstream media. To find it in books that are also well-written, entertaining, and informative, is a pleasant surprise. Mr. Davis has also gone to the effort of footnoting points of historical and scientific importance throughout the books, so if people are interested they can do further study on their own.
Like everything else at Perceval Press right now. Land Of The Lost Mammoths and Pirates, Bats, And Dragons are half price until June 17, 2007. They would make great summer reading for people of all ages.