Book Review: Lost in Lexicon
Illustrations by Joan Charles
Scarletta Press, 2010
Thirteen-year-old cousins Ivan (who likes math) and Daphne (who likes to read) are spending the summer at their wizened old Aunt Adelaide’s house and are trapped by non-stop rain. They long to be back home, playing online video games and texting their friends, and when they complain to that effect, Aunt Adelaide pipes up with, “Is that what it’s come to? You need a screen to entertain you, and without it you’re determined to be bored?”
At which point Ivan fires back “It’s a fast-moving world, Aunt Adelaide.” But the old biddy is having none of that – she sends the children out into the rain on a treasure-hunt, and they find themselves transported to the magical kingdom of Lexicon, where they confront moving punctuation, villages of numbers, and furry little thesauri wandering around.
At which point I rested Penny Noyce’s debut novel Lost in Lexicon atop my sleeping basset hound and groaned aloud, “Sweet Aunt Jemima on a pancake, you’re not telling me this entire book is one extended educational allegory!”
A glance online was enough to confirm my worst suspicions: Penny Noyce is an unapologetic, incorrigible educator of young people, exactly the kind of trouble-maker who’d stoop to putting parallelograms in an adventure story. And Lost in Lexicon has far worse than parallelograms – it’s full of puzzles, games, mental challenges, and even, you guessed it, pi (at one point perky little Daphne prompts Ivan “Pi … you know pi,” and he sullenly responds, “Actually, I’ve kind of forgotten what it is. Maybe because of the fog …” – and I knew exactly how he felt).
Let me prepare you for the worst: there are no eviscerations. No parents erupting in flames. No crossbows. No face-tattoos. There are bad guys, but they’re more misguided (and, of course, misinformed) than evil. How Noyce expects to make a squintillion dollars by having two drug-addled Hollywood naifs play Daphne and Ivan I simply don’t know. It’s almost like she wasn’t even thinking about that when she wrote this book.
Oddly enough, though, after a moment I picked the book back up. I wanted to know how Daphne and Ivan fared in this strange new world. Ordinarily, in the fantasy-worlds of kids books, the young heroes understand nothing at all until they – and the reader – reach the requisite exposition chapter, at which point somebody tells them all about the Ancient Evil, blah blah blah and the Lost Prophecy blah blah blah and the Chosen One blah blah blah. But the world of Lexicon is in no particular hurry to explain itself to its newest visitors – most of the time, Daphne and Ivan have to rely on their own wits to figure things out. And it doesn’t take too many pages before you’re trying to figure things out right alongside them.
There’s magic here, alright, but it’s not really based in quadratic equations. It’s much simpler than that: in the midst of her deplorable fervor to teach kids that there’s more to life than their touch-screen phones, Noyce has also remembered to tell a good story, to keep the plot percolating, and to keep both her characters and their situations refreshingly complex, as when our heroes confer about new acquaintances:
“I’m confused,” he [Ivan] said. “I can’t tell which are the good guys or the bad guys.”
“Maxie was a bad guy.”
“Maxie talked about freedom and little gray robots. These Nomologists or whatever they are talk about prosperity and educating children. But remember, the parents in Quadrant One, the Land of Morning, don’t even know their children are here.”
“You mean we should keep our guard up.”
“I mean don’t just listen to the words. Look. Think. Ask.”
The book is filled with diagrams, charts, equations, and several goofy, charming illustrations by Joan Charles, but the real attraction here is that Noyce has wrapped lessons in a good story rather than wrapped a thin or boring story around her lessons. By the time Daphne and Ivan finally leave Lexicon, they – and all of Noyce’s readers – feel like they’re leaving just as real a place as any. And even Aunt Adelaide gets a touching little moment at the end.
Lost in Lexicon, in other words, will make even the most complacent kid temporarily forget the distractions of screen and phone in favor of investigating, calculating, solving, and discovering – and adults who read it will be carried along too, by a story that’s plain-spoken and involving. And there are more books promised in the series – if Noyce has her fiendish way, we’ll all be remembering pi – and liking it.