Review written by Jocelyn Koehler.
It would it be too high of praise to say that Gary D. Schmidt’s What Came from the Stars is a solid block of crazy cool braised in awesome sauce. It would not be too high of praise, however, to say that this book is special.
In the town of Plymouth, 12-year-old Tommy Pepper is dealing with the death of his mother. His traumatized little sister has stopped speaking entirely, and their grieving father must now fight to keep their beloved, ramshackle house by the ocean before a realtor can tear it down for a condo project.
On the other side of the universe, an ancient civilization is under siege. In a desperate attempt to save their culture, they send a precious object through space and time…and it lands in Tommy Pepper’s lunchbox.
Soon, Tommy has memories of twin suns and can speak words no one else understands. His doodles shine with inner light, and he remembers things that never happened to him. But an evil force is also after the object that Tommy now possesses, and Plymouth falls prey to vicious storms, violent break-ins…and invaders who want what Tommy has.
What Came from the Stars pairs a simple story of a family moving through terrible grief with a mythic account of a distant planet…and mixes the two in a way that makes you question which problem is more important. The mundane world of school and home is treated with the same dignity as an epic battle. And why not? To a middle schooler, they’re the same thing. Tommy negotiates friendship and family while fighting off primal evil…basically, he’s just trying to grow up right.
Schmidt doesn’t usually write speculative-style fiction, but the fantasy elements of this story are approachable and even elegant. (As a fan of Anglo Saxon/Viking era history, I really enjoyed the Valorim bits). But any kid who’s read The Hobbit will sink right into the world of the Valorim, and Schmidt’s clever way of dropping Valorim words and history into Tommy’s brain means that the reader can just sort of skip along with the text. There’s a neat glossary in the back if you feel the need to check a word out.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you should know before suggesting this to your kid
Tommy’s mother dies before the book begins, but Tommy has a powerful memory of her last day, as well as a lot of guilt, because he secretly feels responsible for her death: they fight when she drops him off at school, and he assumes that she got into the car accident because she was distracted by her pain/anger from the fight. Fortunately, his father and sister never blame him, and they are a strong, solid trio that grieves together.
Not a red light, exactly, but be aware that there are sections of the book that are written in a Tolkien-esque manner, detailing the troubles of a fantasy civilization as it falls to a nasty piece of work named Mondus. Kind of like Stalin, Mondus order the death of millions, kills his own underlings, and is generally a jerk. A hero kills him at the end. There are sword fights and slayings, but everything is described in a very “high literary” fashion. It’s not gritty.
There’s only one, and he’s not a real human, as revealed by his hastily chosen name, Mr PilgrimWay. He’s manipulative and evil, charming everyone but Tommy (who is immune to his tricks). However, he’s really the only nasty adult, with the exception of the selfish realtor. Nearly everyone else in the story is a good-hearted person.
A minor plot thread deals with a rich-girl bully who torments Tommy (and others), mostly on the school bus. Tommy deals with her not by telling an adult about the issue, but by using his newfound powers to basically humiliate the girl and frighten her away from bullying again. Probably not the textbook way to deal with bullying, but all the characters (even the adults!) seem really satisfied by Tommy’s resolution.
I think this book is a worthy addition to the Gary Schmidt catalog. He not only balances a whack Superman-meets-Tolkien kind of fantasy narrative with a touching and not-too-twee story of love and loss, he manages the trick of making a 12-year-old boy into a noble and mature character to love. There’s something very classic about this story: think old Twilight Zone style, or the visionary Americana of Ray Bradbury. And as always, Schmidt’s writing is great, with wonderful descriptions of the town, the people, and in particular the natural world and weather, which is almost a character itself. Extremely well done, enjoyable to read, and highly recommended.
What Came from the Stars by Gary D. Schmidt
Published in 2012 by Clarion Books
Read a free print ARC