Review of the Day: York – The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby
A wise bookseller friend of mine once said (and I’m paraphrasing here because she bloody tweets too often to locate the precise words), “If you work in a bookstore you are only allowed to invoke The Westing Game three times. The first time I did it for Greenglass House by Kate Milford. The second time will go to Laura Ruby’s York.” Naturally a librarian reads something like that and their radar starts beeping like mad. A Westing Game invocation is no small matter. And as luck would have it I had a copy of Laura Ruby’s very book on my shelf. Sorta. I mean, coming in at a whopping 448 pages I’d sort of assumed that it was YA. I was not without reason. Laura Ruby has written middle grade in the past but at this precise moment in time is probably better known for books like the National Book Award / Printz Award winning young adult novel The Bone Gap. It can also be unwise to have one’s own expectations raised so incredibly high when starting a new novel. They are inevitably going to be dashed
Imagine New York City in the early 19th century. Imagine what would have happened if it had been home to two genius twins. Twins capable of inventing mechanical creations that eliminated waste, used special glass to harness the sun’s energy, and more. Twins who remade the city in their image and created a code in its very streets. Find the code and a treasure is yours. Simple, right? Only no one ever solved it. Now it is modern day and two different twins and a friend in their beloved building have discovered that a greedy real estate developer has bought their home and is mere months away from kicking them out. All seems lost until a mysterious letter arrives. It appears that while the Morningstar twins of long ago did create a cipher for the city to solve, there may have been more than one line of clues to follow. Using their brains, their feet, and more than a little bravery, the three kids set out to solve the mystery and save their building. Yet as they do they come to an unnerving realization. This isn’t just the city that never sleeps. It’s a city that takes pleasure in watching YOU sleep.
Laura Ruby, the author, does not live in New York City. I knew this going into the book. I, on the other hand, lived there for eleven years so I’m very attuned to writers getting that city wrong in their fiction. For example, I once read an otherwise admirable middle grade mystery serious where three of the scenes in the book took place in alleyways in Museum Mile. Do I need to tell you that NYC has no alleys and, even if we did, they certainly wouldn’t be on Museum Mile? And one could argue that since Ms. Ruby is dealing with an alternate world Manhattan (the book is primarily set in Manhattan, though there is a very amusing glimpse of Brooklyn in one of the scenes) that she needn’t be so tied to the reality of the city. One could argue that, and one would be wrong. As far as I’m concerned you do the city then you do the research. So I picked up this book and within, I’m gonna say, three chapters I was convinced that Ms. Ruby must have a second secret life in the heart of the Big Apple that she’s let no one know about. Accurate to the city? Baby, you don’t even know the half of it. Okay, here’s just how well Ms. Ruby captures NYC: In one scene our characters are having a discussion when in walks my own kids’ former preschool, Sunshine Daycare. It’s THAT on the nose with the details. Snafus are of the tiny variety. For example, the A train does appear in this story to be an elevated stop at 116th Street when, in fact, that’s actually the 1 train, but I’ll let it lie. And reading this book I was both floored and suddenly hit with a wave of nostalgia. I may not have encountered rollers and Guildmen in my time there, but this is so clearly a love letter to a city I adore that it’s bound to accrue new fans in its travels. After all, it may involve mechanical cleaning caterpillars but this New York also finds the notion of peas in guacamole a crime against mankind. As is right.
Interestingly, this alternate world does retain a fair number of pop culture references. So you’ll see mentions of Spider-Man, Legos, Godzilla, etc. I appreciated this. For whatever reason it drives me batty when authors make up fake names for video games or comic book characters. Ms. Ruby even works in a couple Hamilton references, with a mention of Hercules Mulligan and Eliza Hamilton’s life and achievements. There is the occasional made up thing. Angry Bots instead of Angry Birds, for example. And for some reason there are multiple references to The Matrix though it’s never directly named. Still, all told for the most part the book keeps you grounded in reality.
Jokes. No one ever praises jokes enough. Be serious all you want but a good joke can be worth its weight in gold. Laura Ruby puts a wide array of them in this book. There are the subtle ones that make a comment on our own New York by praising this hypothetical one (example: “… and they could watch for schools of fish darting through the clear blue water of the Hudson”). And like a lot of my favorite children’s fiction, it has jokes that are going to lead to kids looking up further information, just so that they can stay in the know. For example, at one point a kindly therapist asks why Tess draws crows over her heads when she sketches and her reply is, “That’s not a crown… That’s a nimbus of outrage.” My favorite, however, may be Theo’s shirt that says “Schrodinger’s cat is dead” on the front and then a zombie cat on the back with the line, “Schrodinger’s cat is ALIIIIIIVE.” I will be seeking this t-shirt out to buy presently. And for the record, I’m pretty sure there are a lot of references in this book I wasn’t getting. One of the cipherists met in the book is named Omar Khayyam. In light of that I’m fairly certain that Ray Turnage, Adrian Birch, and Imogen Sparks also have meanings worth discovering.
Of course making it funny is all well and good, and you could have a whole novel built on the excitement of the premise alone. Still, when you meet an author that isn’t afraid to delve a little deeper and say something about humanity in a children’s book, that’s pretty neat. As a result, I took note of a lot of really insightful lines peppered throughout the chapters. Things like, “The biggest problem we have is that people like to fool themselves into thinking that they could never be fooled.” Or someone feeling a sense of relief and, “letting out a rush of breath that felt like the pulling of a splinter.” And for some reason I was really moved by a character with dementia hugging an animal and crying for their dog. When told they never had a dog they respond, “I miss the dog I never had.”
Now let’s talk about how you set up a mystery novel for kids. There are two ways to go about it. I call the two options The Agatha Christie and The Chasing Vermeer. The Agatha Christie model is the hardest to pull off. You give your readers all the facts, lay them out plain and clear, and let them solve the mystery alongside you. When done well this engages the reader and makes them complicit in the solution. Instant audience identification! Brilliant! Then you have The Chasing Vermeer method. Now the book Chasing Vermeer was very popular with kids, so you can’t knock it on that account. It was, however, a book where the mystery and solution was based entirely on coincidences. That’s a frustrating way to set up a novel, and The Shadow Cipher isn’t entirely innocent of this methodology. Early on we learn that as you solve the cipher it solves you. Well that’s awfully convenient. It allows for all kinds of coincidences to occur, from finding the right letter at the right time to solving a part of the cipher mere days before the proposed destruction of the characters’ beloved home. Yet for all that, you get the feeling that Ms. Ruby is playing pretty fair with you. Kids will feel pleased to figure out that a mechanical moth is responsible for the partial blackout in town. They may realize what the twins are doing running around keeping track of the position of one star or another in their building. As a result this book is sort of a combination of the best elements of The Agatha Christie and Chasing Vermeer methods put together. I could have done with less coincidences, but at least they’re interstitial.
Creating alternate Americas is not a job for the lazy. I’ve seen it done well in children’s books and I’ve seen it done magnificently catastrophically poorly. Take, for example, the case of The Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede, or, as it was known during its publication, “Mammothgate”. In 2009 author Wrede wanted to write a story of an alternate U.S. where magic existed and there had never been a Land Bridge to the North American continent. To avoid pesky racial politics the author had simply erased the Land Bridge and said that there weren’t any Native Americans at all in her fantasy world. Sticky racial politics gone, right? But exchanging mammoths for American Indians (hence the term “Mammothgate”) even in a fantasy is little more than a quick erasing of an entire race simply because they’re inconvenient to your plot. Since the brouhaha that erupted from those choices other authors have tread more carefully. Matthew Kirby in The Lost Kingdom incorporated American Indians into much of his plot (even as he reduced female protagonists to mere fainting females). And here, Laura Ruby could have ignored Native Americans entirely. Or, she could have kept their history identical to that of the real America. Instead, Ruby makes the choice to give them different outcomes. At one point in the background we see an Embassy of the Five Hundred Nations, “flying the colorful flags of First Nations from the Abenaki to the Comanche, Pawnee to the Sioux.” We see Native teens dropping lyrics on the street. Later a mention is made of a fictional superhero named “Super Indian” which, quite frankly, doesn’t exactly sound all that different from the real world Apache Chief. It reminds me of the old Harvey Birdman show where Black Lightning is complaining to Aquaman about his name. When Aquaman doesn’t get the problem Black Lightning says, “How would you like it if I called you White Fish?” Same diff.
As odd as it may seem, the book that this reminded me of the most wasn’t the aforementioned Westing Game or Greenglass House but rather The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. In both cases you have kids encountering old technology with a secret locked inside, just waiting to be revealed. You also have cases where the villain is almost just as much circumstances as it is a big bad guy. I don’t think I’m spoiling much to tell you that the real estate developer with the bad hair who only dates models and is buying up much of NYC (and has five letters in his name, and, and, and…) never makes a physical appearance on these pages. Not this time around. I suspect as the years go by and these books continue to be published we will find ourselves hoping against hope for him to be defeated in a particularly satisfying manner.
Greatest Objection to This Book: No libraries. I shall expect this problem to be rectified in future installments. Ditto trips to Staten Island, Queens, and the poor much ignored Bronx. I have a dream that someday someone will set a mystery or fantasy in the Bronx and at long last that borough shall have its due.
It is one thing to want to write a scavenger hunt. It another thing to set that hunt in a world so like and unalike our own. And when you go even further and pepper your story’s inherent excitement with eloquence, your final product doesn’t shine. It glows from within. The Shadow Cipher glows. Oh sure, I would have changed stuff here and there, but on the whole the book is strong, sturdy and for all that it’s over 400 pages it’s pretty unputdownable. It won’t matter if a kid knows Manhattan like the back of their hand or has never even seen 5th Avenue firsthand. The city today is just like the city in this book. It’s a puzzle, and every person that visits it attempts to solve that puzzle for themselves. I don’t know what the future holds for future installments of this series, but I do know that NYC should hire Ms. Ruby as their current publicist. A graceful paean to the best of Manhattan, and a shocking, gripping, nail-biting, intriguing mystery for fans of codes, ciphers, puzzles, and treasure.
For ages 9-14.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
- Greenglass House by Kate Milford
- The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
First Lines: “The true story of any city is never a single tale; it’s a vast collection of stories with many different heroes. But most storytellers believe that theirs is the only true story and that they are the only true heroes. They are surprised to find out they are wrong.”
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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