Middle Grade Book Review: Jed and the Junkyard War by Steven Bohls – 2.5 stars

Well, I knew the day would come when I was disappointed by a book that I planned to review and wasn’t sure what to say. I have so much respect for authors and the hard work they do to create a piece of literature that it pains me to write a negative review. I considered just putting the book down when I was finished and not writing a review at all…but I feel like, as someone who puts her opinions out here on the blog regularly, there’s more integrity in telling the truth than in just avoiding it.

All of that to say, Jed and the Junkyard War was not for me. I had high hopes – it’s a middle grade post-apocalyptic story about a boy named Jed who wakes up one morning to missing parents and a series of odd clues for finding a grandfather he’s never known. He travels to a strange world filled with junk (we never do find out why that is!) and is immediately accosted by a strange cast of characters that make up the crew of an airship.

By introducing them to a series of objects from his regular life (such as a watch and a can opener) he wins the trust of the crew and gains their agreement to help him on his quest. Along the way, Jed and the crew are attacked by various lifeforms from the junk world and ultimately come face-to-face with Jed’s grandfather, who turns out to be someone other than who Jed expected. Some of Jed’s compatriots are sacrificed in the final battle while others survive…ultimately the author leaves the book on a cliffhanger, giving Jed more work to do to complete his quest, and allowing the reader to become aware that a sequel will ensue.

There are certainly things to recommend this book: Bohls’ world building is amazing! He describes the world that Jed discovers in great detail and populates it with inventive descriptions and intriguing characters. Additionally, Jed himself is an interesting character…he seems to have a sharp mind and a quick wit and, at the beginning of the book, it’s easy to root for him to conquer his quest and find his family!

Unfortunately, for me, confusion reigned in this book. The ‘rules’ of the junk world weren’t clear to me…why are there three different kinds of populations? Why do they live in particular areas? Why do they hate each other? Why is all of their food in cans? Where do all these cans come from? I wasn’t bought into the story enough to just forego all explanations and go along blindly into the world.

I also found the characters in the junk world confusing: Jed meets at least 4-5 characters on the airship but I struggled to differentiate them. Given nonsense names like Sprocket and Pobble, I found myself unable to remember who was who or understand the individual roles that specific characters were supposed to play in the story.

Finally, I found Bohls’ dialog unnecessarily annoying. Characters ask bizarre questions and give bizarre answers for little reason and with no explanation. The one female character that I could differentiate from the others seemed to communicate only in baby talk throughout the book. Many of the characters’ conversations read like ‘Who’s On First?’ routines.

I also have to mention two plot points that troubled me greatly: 1) Pobble is described as obese. That, in itself, is not a problem but the author spends a significant amount of page space just ridiculing and making fun of the character’s size. In a book for kids and in a world that already abounds in fat shaming activities, I really question Bohls’ need to create a character just to be the butt of fat jokes. 2) Shay, the babytalking character referenced above, is one of the only females in the story. Given the choice to create a babytalking character, must it be a girl? Given the choice to create only one prominent female character, must she only be able to whine petulantly? I struggle to understand whether or not any thought about the implications of that decision occurred at all.

All in all, while the junkyard world was vivid and colorful, the chaotic presentation of the story left me cold and confused. While some may make the case that middle grade fiction doesn’t require the kind of coherence and explanation that I hoped for…I maintain that even children expect more! Let’s give them books that are wildly inventive and innovative in their creation that can also provide a plot that holds together and characters that they can follow!

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