Dead Boys by Royce Buckingham begins with a prologue that tells the story of an old sycamore tree growing in Richland, WA in the arid, eastern part of the state. Just down the road from the Hanford Nuclear Plant, site of some serious toxic waste dumps into the Columbia River in the 1940s. This dump fills the tree with toxic energy, turning it hungry and violent. When a twelve-year old boy hides out in the hollow of the tree's trunk one day in an attempt to escape punishment from his father, the tree senses his energy and wants it. When the boy becomes weak and dehydrated over the course of his stand-off, the tree catches him in the place between life and death and, like the half-life decay of a radioactive substance. By the time that Teddy and his single mom move to town for her new job, the tree has claimed five other boys, all aged twelve at the time of their disappearance. However, Teddy doesn't know any of this at first. He just knows that the menacing sycamore tree in the yard next to his new home seems to be drawing him in against his better judgement and will.
Having moved in summer, Teddy does not have school to keep him busy or help him make new friends. And, the scorching temperatures outside combined with the internet and air conditioning inside make him unlikely to follow his mom's instructions to get outside and make some new friends. However, a rupture in the AC unit, which turns out to have been caused by tree roots, gets Teddy out on his bike and riding around town. At an undeveloped park he finds a chubby kid throwing rocks into the river. Albert introduces himself, says a few weird things about outdated things like the video game Space Invaders and the original Star Wars movie, and invites Teddy to throw rocks with him. The two are getting along fine until the school bully, Henry Mulligan, shows up with his gang. Albert jumps in the river, hoping to float downstream and away from Mulligan and Teddy takes off on his bike. Albert tells Teddy to meet him at the Bookworm on George Washington Way as he is carried off. When Teddy bikes into town to find the store, it's not where it should be. A pharmacy stands in it's place and the sales lady is stunned when Teddy asks where the bookstore, long moved down the street, has gone. When Teddy bikes back to the park to see if Albert might have returned there, the park is no longer a dusty, tumbleweed strewn patch. It's developed and green and impossibly new.
Something strange is going on and it takes Teddy (and the reader) most of the book to piece it together. We may know that the sycamore tree is a toxic nightmare that seemingly feeds off young boys, but the who, where, how and when unfold in a way that is sometimes hard to make sense of. Teddy manages to do a bit of detective work on his own, but not much more than the dates of birth and death of the dead boys is revealed. Despite this, Buckingham creates an interesting limbo world where the boys are slowly being drained of life - yes, they are all still alive and this has something to do with half-life, which Teddy's mom explains briefly but the author never explains further in connection with the tree, so this is my guess. In this limbo, each boy has a "home" that mimics the place he was when he died. Albert's home is at the park by the river, Walter's home is in the skeleton of a tract house in the process of being built, Eugene Sloot's is in the hollow of the tree. When Teddy travels around Richland, he can see and interact with the dead boys when he visits the places of their deaths. When he decides to try to defeat the tree, Teddy is thrust into the limbo land where he gets to see the home/death sites of all six of the boys. He also sees where his home/death site will be as the climax approaches. It seems that the tree is prodding the dead boys to entrap a new life for it to consume (it does this every ten years) and the dead boys go along with it, not wanting to be drained of life entirely by the tree. However, some of the boys have have guilty feeling about this and ultimately fight to help Teddy, even if it means their own deaths.
The final battle with the tree is pretty intense and, when Teddy makes his escape and returns to his own time and space, one of the few peripheral adults in the story is there to rescue him. However, Teddy, knowing that the dead boys are a little bit alive and also knowing the exact places where they died, takes his rescuer, Officer Barnes, all over town pulling twelve year old boys out of the river, out of a ditch, out of an unused chimney in a church and out of a crawl space. Two of the boys do not make it through the ordeal, but the tree is felled in the end and the dead boys, still twelve, are returned to their families even though the last times they were seen alive were in 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2000.
One cool thing I need to squeeze in: The image of the tree reaching for the boy appears at the start of each of the 39 chapters. At first, the boy is very much out of reach of the grasping branches, but as the story progresses the branches get closer and closer...
What follows is my thought process as I tried to determine the merits of the book as a potential CYBILS winner in the Science Fiction/Fantasy Elementary & Middle Grade Category.
First Impressions as a Reader
While hard to keep up with at times, I found Dead Boys to be very different from the kind of books I usually read and pretty entertaining. There were many points when I wished that the author had employed a different, more vibrant and descriptive writing style, but over all the plot hung together well and the dead boys of the title were interesting, especially when they were trying to trap Teddy for selfish reasons.
First Impressions of a CYBILS Judge Who Has Agreed to Read and Consider a Short List of Books for the Honor of Best Fantasy & Science Fiction (Middle Grade) 2010
I can see why everyone likes this book and it made it this far in the game. It is VERY different and entertaining. However, I definitely have some criticisms for Dead Boys.
Final Impressions: Literary Merit vs. Kid Appeal
Solidly readable and innovative. There really isn't that much "horror" writing on the shelves for older readers these days. I could see Goosebumps lovers moving up to this book pretty well. However, the plot structure might be a challenge for readers who aren't quite at grade level. There are no girls in this book. Not that that is a requirement, many girls will read books without girls in them without thinking twice. Boys and the reverse, not the same story. For this to have genuine kid appeal, should it appeal to both genders?
Rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (The Roar and When You Reach Me being a 9 in terms of literary merit) : 5
Rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (The Diary of a Wimpy Kid and 39 Clues being a 9 in terms of kid appeal) : 8
OVERALL SCORE: 6.5
Below is some very cool, creepy original art based on the book.
|Artist: Jillene Smith, Bellingham, WA|