The Ability: a Bookworks book report!
Posted on April 12th, 2013
hen you’re 12, anything is possible. In The Ability, M. M. Vaughn’s freshman effort for middle grade readers, we are ushered into a world where that statement isn’t comfortable hyperbole and young minds make mayhem for love and country.
Twelve-year-old Christopher Lane’s life is every flavor of awful. Poor but on scholarship at a London private school, Christopher moves through his days friendless and failing, a target for unsympathetic staff and students alike. Home is worse. For years, Christopher has secretly maintained a household for his mother and himself as best he could, a necessity in light of his mother’s deteriorating mental state.
Into this dank state of affairs (no kidding, there’s mold) breezes Miss Sonata with a test for Christopher to take, the results of which are liberating. Kind of. Christopher is among a small group of 12-year-olds with a strong Ability—the power to use their minds to acquire knowledge at a staggering rate and to read the thoughts and memories of others. Christopher and four similarly-talented children are recruited to hone their talents in service to their country against an equally-abled, shadowy threat.
Writer Vaughn mentions Roald Dahlby name as one of her influences but I’m not sure that she needed to; Dahl’s influence can be strongly felt in the wholly unsympathetic adults who are the rule rather than the exception in the lives of all of the children. Imagine the life of Charlie Bucket without the comic relief of his bedridden grandparents and you’re looking at Christopher’s life.
But Vaughn is reaching for more complexity and less satire than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Her young villains are pawns, too, which introduces a lovely shade of gray to a moral palate that might otherwise have suffered from too much black and white. Her masterstroke, though, is the cultivation of the theme of children caring for their parents, for those (presumably) wise and venerable souls that, by all rights, should be taking care of them. This is as true on the micro level, in Christopher’s relationship with his mother as well as that of our micro-villains and their adopted mother, as it is on the macro—because England needs this team of tiny psychics to save the prime minister, darn it!
Marcel—a 12-year-old with his own modest abilities—read this along with me, but his take on the book’s overriding theme was different than mine.
“I thought The Ability was really about the lack of ability, or the place where your ability to change anything or do anything stops,” Marcel said, referring specifically to an unpleasant incident with an ice sculpture that I won’t spoil for you here. “There’s only so much they can do. Really, there’s only so much any human being can do.”
The best thing about The Ability (aside from reading it with Marcel) is that Vaughn is just getting started. Beyond Christopher and his heartbreaking opposite number, Ernest, the characterization can be somewhat light. But like her characters, Vaughn’s Ability is strong. What follows next from her is sure to be sharper and deeper. Any sequel will be down-right spoon-bending.∗
Many thanks to Bookworks, Albuquerque’s stellar bookstore, for a sneak peak at this release. Want to give a gift to a child that will turn heads and start a discussion? Be subversive. Buy them a book. And do it at Bookworks!