Some adult writers make the transition to writing for children smoothly; others don't. Having read a few Grisham novels in my time, I was curious to see how well this author crossed over. I sat down to read Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer, only to find myself asking: John Grisham is basically a decent writer, so why didn't his new book for kids turn out better?
But first, an introduction to the plot: Theo Boone is not only the child of two lawyers, he is an aspiring lawyer (or maybe judge) whose friends come to him Encyclopedia Brown-style for legal advice. Theo spends his free time in his own little section of his parents' law office or hanging around down at the courthouse, where he has befriended at least one judge, among various other personnel. Not a bad premise.
This is a small- to medium-sized suburban town, which is meant to explain why it's only had one murder since the 1950s. Now a murder trial is taking place, and Theo unexpectedly gets some inside scoop through his kid connections. The question is, how can he get that information to the right people before a murderer walks, especially since he's been asked not to reveal the identity of the frightened witness?
Troubles with this book:
1. Some of the exposition about legal matters is worked in smoothly, but other times it seems lecturish.
2. Theo, speaking of lectures, is thirteen going on fifty, which doesn't make him the most appealing main character in the world. His love of the law seems beyond nerdy, and he comes across far too often as a dry kind of guy.
3. The cases the kids in the Encyclopedia Brown books bring to the boy detective are generally plausible, but I'm less convinced by the legal questions Theo's peers bring to him.
4. Since the murder case is being tried by and for grown-ups, Theo's involvement is necessarily peripheral, and he must eventually take his troubles to adults for help. (One of the first rules of children's books is that young characters must solve their own problems, or mostly solve them, without adult interference.) This difficulty is due to the basic setup, but it's nevertheless an issue.
5. The bad guy's evil bodyguard eyeballs Theo too often, and too early in the book. Theo really wouldn't draw that much attention till later in the story, and then for specific reasons.
6. Like many adult writers who cross over to writing for younger readers, Grisham sounds a bit stilted—and occasionally condescending—as he tries to write at a level he imagines is more appropriate for this audience.
7. Biggest complaint? A huge cliffhanger, in which Grisham refuses to wrap up the plot we've been following for 250-plus pages. I don't mind some loose threads leading to another story, but I really resent it when an author doesn't deliver on the promise of the main plot, especially when the story clearly could have fit in a book of this size in its entirety. (Add another fifty pages if you need to, Dutton!) I find myself wondering whether the writer couldn't be bothered to come up with a tightly constructed story, or whether he didn't trust us to read the sequel without said cliffhanging. Either way, I was Not Happy when I got to the last few pages and realized what Mr. Grisham had done. (A lawyer might say Trial 1 = Book 1 and Retrial = Book 2, but if you read this, you'll see what I mean from a character-and-plot perspective. The whole book ends up feeling like a setup for the actual story.)
So, good points? Old hand that he is, Grisham tells a decent tale. And some of the secondary characters are intriguing, especially Theo's pseudo-hippy uncle, Ike. I also like Theo's braces and the fact that he named his dog Judge. Details such as these lighten the heaviness of the whole "love of law" theme. Not to mention, Grisham has set up a very cute website for his legal eaglet.
I imagine there are plenty of people who will enjoy this book, but I found myself distracted from the storytelling far too often to recommend Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer. Perhaps Grisham will get more comfortable with the shift to writing for a younger audience in Book Two. (And I will be shocked—shocked, I say—if they don't make this into a movie!)