Reading books for children and youth as an adult means you start to see the same things over and over again. There are tropes common to many books intended for children. So when you read a kids’ book with some fresh ideas, you really notice.
Adam and Cressida Bloom are brother and sister and, like all good storybook heroes, are orphans. Cressida is a fantastically talented singer while Adam is just her ordinary younger brother. When Cressida is invited to a Festival of Youthful Genius, Adam finds a way to tag along to escape from their unkind uncle and guardian.
Adam is the odd man out at the festival, where every other child has some extraordinary talent. Cressida is annoyed by his presence and the man who has brought these children together, Fortescue, lets Adam know how unwelcome he is. However, it very quickly becomes apparent that something isn’t right and the talented children begin to lose their talents. There’s a strange creature lurking about and when Cressida loses her singing talent, Adam is determined to figure out what’s going on and to get her ability back. With the help of a racing car driver whose lost her talent and a shepherd whose lost his tracking abilities, Adam and Cressida chase Fortescue as he and the creature escape in a tin shed attached to a hot air balloon.
The idea of a mysterious creature who extracts talents as spheres from other living creatures is a unique one and the creature itself has some good nuance. The descriptions of it are definitely creepy and put this story in a range for older children. (I think ages 10-12 would be perfect.) The story is set in a vaguely European imaginary land that has a lot of charm and while most of the peripheral characters that our heroes meet are not much more than caricatures, they’re at least interesting caricatures. There’s some mystery as to the creature’s history and motivation which is good because Fortescue is a pretty one-dimensional villain of the evil simply for the sake of being evil type.
Adam is a likeable character and easy to identify with for those of us with modest talents. And since he turns out to be the true hero of this story, he could definitely be encouraging for young readers. On the other hand, I found Cressida to be profoundly unlikeable. She spends most of the book being annoyed at her brother who is actively risking his life to save her talent.
The story dragged on a little long for me and my major issue with it was that I found a lot of the sentence structure to be awkward and unnatural. This may have been more noticeable because I was reading it aloud to Pearl but there were many spots where the dialogue didn’t ring true and words were repeated. (I mean, how many times can different characters look bemused?) I wasn’t super engaged all the way through but I think a young reader certainly could be.