Because sometimes, you just want to rave about a really excellent book, there are too many points to make and forming complete sentences would take too long, and it’s perfectly acceptable to use fragments in a chat format!
Brief plot summary: a doomed alien species crams their Art into a necklace and flings it into space. It ends up in the hands of Tommy Pepper, a sixth grader from Plymouth, Mass. who’s grieving for his mother. The necklace gives Tommy strange powers, which draw the unfortunate attention of those who want to destroy the aliens. The story alternates between Earth and the doomed aliens–one side told in regular English, the other in high fantasy prose. Somehow, Schmidt makes it work.
Note: minor spoilers in the last 20 lines of our review.
Lisa: when we brought up What Came From the Stars at KidlitCon, no one we talked to liked it!
Jen: =( although the Tommy Pepper segments were well received, the high fantasy left them cold
Lisa: yeah, even several die-hard fantasy fans (aka Cybils MG fantasy round 1 readers) didn’t like it
Jen: what’s wrong with them?
Lisa: or us!
Jen: well, I’m staunchly Team Valorim. It belongs in the story.
I loved every glorious over-the-top bit of Tolkienesque prose because clearly, Schmidt was having fun and going for a parody/homage
Lisa: me too. It was too perfect, too Tolkienesque to be deadly earnest. Even if it does look 100% serious
Jen: plus, I can’t resist sentences that flaunt words like “cleave” and “hewn” and “grievous was the battle”
Outside of high fantasy, when else can you say stuff like “Do not be afraid. Now is the time for a strong heart and a strong mind.”?
Lisa: tis fortifying rhetoric
I should tell myself this every time I go to the dentist
Jen: don’t you wish we spoke like the Valorim once in awhile?
Lisa: um, not really. it’s way better in print
(do you think there’ll be an audiobook?)
Jen: can you imagine the Valorim stuff read in a non-English accent?
for example, a Boston accent, since the Tommy parts take place in Plymouth, MA!
Lisa: I definitely imagine the Queen’s English
Jen: I’m gonna go with North Irish
Lisa: [pause as Jen attempts to read with Northern Ireland accent]
[she sounds like Julie Andrews]
Jen: what! no! that was my generic fantasy accent! humph!
Lisa: so Julie Andrews = Elf?
Jen: I think Dame Julie would not be amused
Lisa: probably not
Jen: Until Stars, I’ve never come across a book that merged sci-fi + fantasy + the real world
it’s usually just two of the three genres
Lisa: yeah. this is special
though I keep forgetting about the sci-fi part
Jen: agreed, I have to remind myself that it’s about aliens
Lisa: high fantasy aliens who probably play harps all day long
Lisa: I would’ve been bored if the whole book was like that, but it was genius to intersect that language with Tommy Pepper…in Plymouth, MA, befuddling his classmates with his new-found skills
oh, here’s a taste of the Valorim sections. This is how the book opens:
So the Valorim came to know that their last days were upon them. The Reced was doomed, and the Ethelim they had loved well and guarded long would fall under the sharp trunco of the faceless O’Mondim and the traitors who led them. The Valorim looked down from the high walls of the Reced and knew they would find no mercy in the dark fury of the O’Mondim massed below–none for all they had loved.
Jen: can’t you just hear the LotR soundtrack in the background?
So the Forge was heated again, as it had been long ago, heated in the uppermost of the Tower chambers, and one by one the Valorim Elders gave the songs of their hearts, and Young Waeglim shaped a Chain, green and silver, each link a piece of their Art, each link a piece of the Heart of the Valorim. The Chain of the Valorim Art flew upward, far away from the victory of the O’Mondim, and far from their sudden despair and fierce anger at the loss of what above all things the Lord Mondus had desired to hold in his hand, and for which he had hazarded all. But the Chain left that world, and the Song and Thought of Young Waeglim and the Art within that Chain gave it power….And so through cold light and colder darkness and cold light and colder darkness, the Chain sped. And sped. And sped, until listen! It came…to a single small planet….where it fell….until with a final tumble, the Chain of the Valorim Art, the chain that held their Song, the Chain that was all that was left against the Silence…dropped into the Ace Robotroid Adventure lunch box of Tommy Pepper, sixth grader, of the class of Mr. Burroughs, of William Bradford Elementary School, of Plymouth, Massachusetts.
It took some time before Tommy noticed.
Jen: And just like that, the extraordinary and the mundane converge!
I’m fine with it, but some of the KidlitConners thought it was too much of a coincidence that the Art of the Valorim ended up in his lunchbox.
Lisa: But that’s the point!
it doesn’t matter. it’s Fate
Jen: the wand chooses the wizard
Lisa: Frodo was meant to have the Ring
besides, what matters is how Tommy reacts once this strange celestial necklace arrives
Jen: but actually, it did strike me as odd that Tommy never questions his newfound powers, but not odd enough to keep me from buying the rest of the story
Lisa: I didn’t mind it at all
Jen: why not?
Lisa: once he put on the necklace, it made him understand things only Valorim knew, and he didn’t see things from a fully human perspective anymore. I didn’t want the story slowed down by his equivalent of the “Harry–yer a wizard” moment
It was funnier too. he keeps spouting random things no one else understands, like the word hanorah. Rhymes with menorah
Jen: what, no! it’s HAN-o-rah! I’m absolutely certain of it.
Lisa: I’m…even more certain
Schmidt makes up all these Valorim language words and never defines them
you end up getting the meaning through context
Jen: It’s funny how we never get a physical description of the noble Valorim or the courageous Ethelim, either
or what kind of weapons they use
Lisa: the weapons are hilarious
Tommy is always described as not knowing how to hold them, or holding them wrong
except we have no idea what the right way is, since we don’t know what they look like
I keep imagining giant garden rakes
Jen: obviously, the “right” way to hold them is upside down!
Lisa: apparently 🙂
anyway, I love that the plot depends on the Valorim sending their ART across the universe
not technology or anything, just their art, music, etc
Jen: how often do you read about kids who unabashedly appreciate art and music and beauty? That’s trademark Schmidt
Wednesday Wars = Shakespeare
OK4Now = Audubon, Copland, and Bronte
and here, it’s a Bach piano piece called Sleepers Wake
Jen: not to mention Tommy’s newly acquired other-worldly painting skills (you paint thrimble. duh!)
Lisa: yeah, thrimble is so not rucca
Jen: in fact, it’s practically illil!
all the same, when Tommy doesn’t question his powers, do you feel the hero’s why-me moment is missing? or at least, the what’s-happening-to-me moment?
Lisa: I feel like he got that when he was tempted by Mr. PilgrimWay
it’s the same idea: moments when he has to make a choice, decide who he is and all that jazz
Jen: I love Mr. PilgrimWay!
Lisa: so creepy
Jen: ok. so, Tommy misses his mother like crazy, but his family can’t bear to talk about their loss.
emotionally, it’s like a junior version of The Wednesday Wars
Lisa: and there’s something we like to call the Okay for Now reference
after Tommy makes a tough decision:
He had not betrayed her. And he…felt okay.
More okay than he had felt for a long time.
He smiled under the stars.
Jen: Did Schmidt intend to allude to his previous book?
Lisa: I totally missed the reference until you told me
but it’s so obvious now
Jen: maybe he’s immortalizing Okay For Now into his current book because he really really really likes it
Lisa: or, to be cynical, he’s saying it’s okay that Okay for Now didn’t win any Newbery accolades
(right after the Newbery announcement in January, some bloggers started the #reallynotokayfornow hashtag to vent)
Jen: loved that hashtag!
so, let’s go full circle back to why the combination of Tommy’s world (our world) and Planet Valorim actually does complement each other…and really well, too!
Lisa: The book is about Tommy’s grief for his mother, and that very personal thing ends up with cosmic effects…literally
It’s like his mother’s death influences the fate of another world, and vice versa
Jen: yes! The Art of the Valorim enables Tommy to do incredible things, including flashback to happier times with his mother. At the same time, now that the Art has brought his mom so much “closer” to him, the fall of Planet Valorim to Lord Mondus’ ruthless grip has absolutely everything to do with how Tommy deals with his mother’s passing.
Lisa: hey, one blogger at kidlitcon said she found the Tommy Pepper parts too depressing
I thought they had enough humor
Jen: well, Schmidt is brilliant at finding the humor in a dark situation, and doing a one-eighty just as quickly
turning what should be funny into something sad
(the gym class/wrestling scene springs to mind)
Lisa: (from Okay for Now)
Jen: very well, some Stars humor, then, from Tommy’s science class:
Tommy figured he should try to be helpful. So when Mr. Burroughs said that it would take an astronaut longer than four years traveling at the speed of light to reach Alpha Centauri, Tommy raised his hand and pointed out it would only take half that many seconds on Thought, and Mr. Burroughs had raised an eyebrow and said, “Thought?” and Tommy said, “Yeah, Thought,” and told him how light waves were tons slower than Thought waves. Mr. Burroughs had nodded his head and said yes, we can travel faster in our imaginations, and Tommy had smiled and said, “Exactly,” and then Mr. Burroughs said they were in science class not science fiction class and everyone laughed and Tommy realized that Mr. Burroughs had not gotten it at all.
Tommy didn’t try to be helpful again.
Lisa: I think that’s funny
not ha-ha funny, but a nice bit of humor
Jen: well, sad, too, because Tommy’s amazing knowledge isolates him
so, did you expect this book to turn out the way it did?
the ending was very end of lion/witch/wardrobe: Tommy forgets so much, thinks it’s like a dream
Jen: oh, I meant the way everything converged with the O’Mondim getting to Tommy’s world and then Mr. PilgrimWay using high brow warfare against him
Lisa: high brow?
Jen: as in, not weapons, but trickery, preying on his fears and deepest desires, and Tommy fighting back with his choices.
Lisa: that was brilliant
the actual weapon fighting part was like a farce, compared to the psychological fight
like when Tommy hears the music in the classroom…
(I’m lost for words)
Jen: classic Schmidt
So, did the strange trio of fantasy, sci-fi, and the real world work for you? Were you repulsed or enraptured by the long passages of Tolkienesque prose? Feel free to chime in to our conversation; we’d love to know what you think.