The Doldrums

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Doldrums Book Poster Image
Imaginative illustrated tale of quirky friends' adventures.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Between Archer's explorer grandparents and Adélaïde's childhood in France, young readers will pick up some interesting bits of arcane knowledge, as well as some phrases in French. Also, Archer consults atlases and reads lots of books in his research (suhc as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), and there are frequent references to book characters, such as the Queen of Hearts in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, so there's plenty of opportunity for follow-up reading.

Positive Messages

Being true to your destiny, overcoming obstacles, creative thinking, choosing friendship, and triumphing over your greatest fears.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Though some of the adults (notably Mrs. Murkley and Adélaïde's ghastly mom, who smokes cigarettes) are cartoonishly awful, and some of the elder Helmsleys' odder pals are comically unsavory, most of the parents mean well, even if they sometimes do the wrong thing for the right reasons (such as being overprotective). Archer, Oliver, and Adélaïde often blithely disregard their parents' orders (for example, Archer, who's confined to his house, spends much of the book sneaking to Oliver's house via the roof) and face assorted challenges, but they're steadfast in their friendship and also in their determination to help Archer rescue his grandparents, however dubious the plan. Depending on the occasion, both adults and kids drink a lot of espresso.

Violence & Scariness

The Doldrums offers a lot of mostly comic creepiness. Starting with the mishap that cost Adélaïde her leg (the reader knows it was a bakery-truck accident, but Adélaïde says a crocodile did it and also devoured her mom, which is not true), bad things befall both sympathetic and not-so-sympathetic characters: Large objects fall on them, icebergs carry them off, and so on; animals perish in mishaps and are killed by predators. An important object in the story is a glass eye.

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Doldrums, an appealing, oddball tale from first-time author-illustrator Nicholas Gannon, mixes subversive sweetness with a good dose of Dahl-esque comic creepiness. Set in a retro, early 20th-century neighborhood, it's poignant, wacky, and uplifting by turns as three friendless 11-year-olds find one another and embark on hair-raising adventures. It's all part of a plan to dodge terrifying authority figures and rescue one kid's grandparents, who've gone missing in Antarctica. One of the kids has a wooden leg due to a childhood mishap; another's prized possession is a glass eye that belonged to a seafaring friend of his grandparents; and his friendship with an assortment of taxidermied animals plays a key role in plot developments. Since they're not really allowed to do much of anything, the kids regularly disobey their parents, sneak off to bad parts of town in search of information, and plan to escape to the South Pole during a school trip to the local museum. Through all the crazy developments, kindness, friendship, and truth triumph, though not always as planned.

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What's the story?

Growing up in Helmsley House, surrounded by exotic stuffed animals and other souvenirs of his explorer grandparents' travels, 11-year-old Archer B. Helmsley knows he's destined for similar adventures, but his parents are having none of it. When word comes that the grandparents have been carried off by an iceberg in Antarctica, Archer's mom seizes the excuse to confine him to the house lest he suffer the same fate. But adults are no match for what happens when he meets two other friendless kids: Oliver, mocked and ignored by his classmates, and wooden-legged Adélaïde, just arrived from Paris. Buoyed by mutual support, the three are soon determined to rescue Oliver's grandparents. What could go wrong?

Is it any good?

Suspense, slapstick, appealing characters, and wild situations abound in author-illustrator Nicholas Gannon's imaginative foray into tween angst and off-the-chart adventure. Plentiful color illustrations, in a retro sepia-tinged palette, set the scene and the tone, bringing Archer, Oliver, Adélaïde, and the notably strange Helmsley House to life. Some kids may be put off by such creepy elements as wooden legs, glass eyes, and the like or find the narration a bit self-consciously talky in places, but rarely have so many positive messages -- from the importance of friendship, perseverance, and confronting your demons to a shout-out to beleaguered parents trying to make the right choices for their kids -- been presented with such subversive glee. Take, for example, Adélaïde, who on the first day of school deals with the teacher who has her classmates terrorized:

"'In France,' said Adélaïde, facing Mrs. Murkley once more, 'they tell us to be mindful with those who dictate head placement because these could be the same people who someday tell you to stick it in a guillotine.'

"'You'll stick your head where I tell you to stick it!' Mrs. Murkley demanded. 'In a guillotine or wherever! If you don't, there will be consequences!'

"Adélaïde nodded. 'But,' she said slowly, 'what consequences would be worse than sticking my head in a guillotine?'"

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about explorers and stories about them. Do you have any favorites? Do you think it would be better to be an explorer now or sometime in the past?

  • If you were going on an expedition, how would you prepare? What do you think you'd need to take along? What if you forgot something?

  • Have you ever been in a situation where your friends wanted you to help with something and you did, even though you thought it was a bad idea? What happened?

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