You can tell this book is unusual just by looking at it. Its shape is a perfect square, it is bound in cloth with no dust jacket, and the cover art is strangely wonderful. The contents do not disappoint – this is a tale of children living in a dystopia, looking for adventure and causing a bit of mischief. It also defies a brief description or easy packaging, but I’ll try.
The world of The Wikkeling is really just an exaggerated version of the rapidly accelerating and expanding world we currently inhabit. Schools are standardized to the point of homogeneity, with constant, instantaneous performance evaluations. If any student or school falls behind, the consequences are dire. Children are kept “safe” and “secure” through continuous monitoring to account for their movements throughout the day, an elaborate seat belt system on the bus, and even a camera trained on their beds to watch over them in sleep. Old houses are destroyed to make way for plastic edifices and books are done away with completely in favor of computers. Traffic never lets up, with near-total gridlock even in the middle of the night. It all adds up to a scary, but not completely unbelievable, vision of the future.
Henrietta lives in an old house that is long overdue for destruction. Her life is rather unremarkable, except that she is at the bottom of her class and has to make up work in detention every day. She also gets sudden severe headaches for no known reason, though her parents have been told it might be “House Sickness” from living in such an old house. Then her BedCam malfunctions unexpectedly and, on the same night, blood drips from the ceiling onto her homework. She discovers an attic, full of books and other antiquities, and an injured cat. But more than any of that, she discovers a place where she can explore without being watched. When she’s in the attic, nobody knows where she is or what she is doing. For the first time in her life, Henrietta finds some privacy.
The story takes off when Henrietta meets Gary and Rose, two other kids who also experience the headaches, and shows them the attic. There they pore over a bestiary given to Henrietta by her new grandfather (many pages of which are included for us to read) and learn all sorts of things not included in “district-approved” curriculum. Soon they begin investigating the creature that shows up right before a headache hits and its connection to the world they live in.
Kids reading this book are likely to see it as an adventure story, but to me it’s a warning. Initially, I scoffed at the idea that people wouldn’t know where anything was in their own city, because the GPS would just tell them where to turn. But then I remembered that, in the decade or so that I’ve had a cell phone, I’ve forgotten all but a few phone numbers. I just tell my phone who I want to call, and it figures out those pesky details for me. This book also shows us how standardized education and testing fails, with the top student in the class barely able to read and the bottom student getting in trouble for using words that she has read in books, but are not in the “district-approved vocabulary.” Most of all, however, this book reminds us that children and adults both need room and time to be alone, be creative, be unsafe. And books! Don’t ever let them take away all your physical books and their old book smell!
The creature behind it all, the Wikkeling, is not some monster, but a creation of humans who crave new technology and infrastructure, even at the expense of things that have worked well for centuries. The only command it was given was to “grow,” and the consequences of unlimited expansion can be seen on every page.
One last note: this book is funny. I know it’s a dystopia, and there’s some suspense, but intertwined through it all is some subtle (and not-so-subtle) humor. If there’s a sub-genre out there called Whimsical Dystopia, this would be my top entry. But, as they say – it’s funny because it’s depressingly true.
Recommended for anyone who’s tired of plastic and computer screens and traffic jams and fear-based reporting. Turn everything off, take this one up into a dusty attic, and step out of time for a while.