Brainboy and the Deathmaster
by Tor Seidler
Recommended Age: 12+
When you first meet Darryl Kirby, he is in a lot of pain. His entire family has just been killed in a tragic fire, and his guilt and grief are so great that he can’t even think about it. You find him lying on a bed in an orphanage, barely eating or speaking at all, clinging to the one thing he has left: a video game created by the great Keith Masterly.
Coincidentally, Keith Masterly also owns the Seattle orphanage where Darryl Kirby lives. He owns a lot of orphanages. And the orphans have the privilege of playing Masterly’s most advanced computer games. Games that, secretly, test the intelligence of the children who play them. Darryl turns out to be extremely intelligent... which is why Keith Masterly shows up at the orphanage and offers to adopt him.
It’s funny how that happens, just when Darryl was starting to find happiness again with another family – a fat, friendly woman named Mrs. Walker and her son, Darryl’s age, named BJ. What hurts BJ the most is the way Darryl just disappears and never calls or anything. BJ teams up with another orphan – cigarette-smoking, street-wise, bad-role-model Boris – to search for answers about what happened to Darryl and Boris’ genius sister Nina.
Meanwhile, Darryl and Nina have NOT been adopted. They have been drugged and taken to a top-secret think tank where, along with several other smart kids, they are supposed to be looking for a cure to the aging process. Darryl actually finds the cure, just as the kids start to understand the part they are playing in Masterly’s ruthless plan. Suddenly an escape plot turns into a desperate bid for survival.
The main plot of this book is your standard, run-of-the-mill adventure story. What makes this a special book is the way it combines that plot with an understanding of hurting, vulnerable, and sometimes not-so-virtuous kids. It sympathizes with poor families, troubled and broken families, the loves and hopes and guilts that hold families together and sometimes split them apart. I think the story itself would have plenty of appeal to any early-teen reader. But the heart of this book is in its characters and the sympathy that it builds for them.
A Rat's Tale
by Tor Seidler
Recommended Age: 10+
This is yet another talking-rat story, beautifully illustrated by Fred Marcellino. Its hero is Montague Mad-Rat the Younger, a shy young rat who paints sea-shells as a hobby, and collects feathers and berries which his eccentric mother uses to make multi-colored headdresses. His family also includes a father who makes mud-castles, an uncle who decorates rings, and an aunt who takes Caribbean cruises almost constantly.
It's only when he meets, by chance, Isabella Moberly-Rat, a pretty young wharf-rat of the upper crust, that he realizes the shame that rat society connects with rats who work with their paws. Montague tries to escape from this stigma by helping to collect extra money to pay "rat rent" on the New York wharfs (whose rat inhabitants make a practice of bribing the owners not to poison them, by filling a rain-barrel with hard cash once a year). Little does he know that his family shame will turn out to be salvation for all the rats in Manhattan, and will win him the heart of dear little Izzy.
It's an adventure, filled with interesting characters and multiple levels of conflict - guilt, sorrow, loneliness, shame, greed, heroism, despair, romance, and several very moving moments. The real turning point of the story is when Montague's father takes one brief break from building castles. This would make a delightful animated film, I think. As it is, it has lots of cute little puns on the word "rat" and a fairly rich depiction of rat family, society, and individual characters. And heck, I'm a sucker for talking rodents.
The Revenge of Randal Reese-Rat
by Tor Seidler
Recommended Age: 10+
This sequel to A Rat's Tale has a lot of things going for it: humor, romance, mystery, adventure, a touching tale of personal redemption, and charming illustrations by Brett Helquist (best known for his work on the Series of Unfortunate Events). It takes place, mainly, in the community of wharf- and sewer-rats in lower Manhattan, USA (and one particular illustration is a poignant reminder that this book was published just before 9/11/01).
This story picks up, more or less, where A Rat's Tale leaves off, with underdog hero Montague Mad-Rat about to marry his upper-crust dream girl, Isabel Moberly-Rat. Meanwhile, Monty's globetrotting aunt has gone to Africa to fetch her daughter, Maggie, a harmonica-toting musician and rainmaker, for the wedding. And Isabel's former fiance, the fussy and prejudiced Randal Reese-Rat, gazing down from his sick room (he is still recovering from a bit of rat poison), looks on the festivities with a combination of disdain, jealousy, and humiliation. Worse, a horrible misunderstanding leaves Randal unjustly accused of a terrible crime, forced to flee from rat society and hide under an assumed identity.
But Randal has a secret passion that gives him an unexpected connection with Monty's cousin Maggie. And their chance meeting gives love a chance to pierce his stubborn heart. Will it get through before his plans for revenge ruin everything?
Read this book and bask in the warmth of the author's love of wild animals, the even wilder city, and more puns on the word "rat" than you can shake your tail at.
EDIT: Other books by Seidler, including several that I have been planning to read, include Brothers Below Zero, The Dulcimer Boy, Toes, The Wainscott Weasel, and Mean Margaret. Regretfully, I could not find a decent-sized image of A Rat's Tale, so some of these other books are shown instead.