Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Lion of Mars

Holm, Jennifer L. The Lion of Mars
January 5th 2021 by Random House Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Netgalley

In 2091, Bell has always lived on Mars, so it is the only home he knows. He has heard tales of Earth from some of the adults in the US settlement, especially from the gardener, Phinneus, who is in charge of the algae farm and takes care of the only remaining cat, Leo. All of the children were orphans who were brought up by members of the other country's settlements, but after the death of one of the US settlers, all contact was cut off with the other countries. While the older children want less and less to do with Bell as they become obnoxious teenagers, he still hangs out with Phinneus, Salty Bill the cook, and Meems, who oversees the children's chores and learning. When the adults become seriously ill, the children try to cope on their own, but when help from Earth won't come for months,  they eventually try to reach the other settlements. They try to use the long abandoned train system and run into some problems, but Bell manages to get help. The children stay at the French settlement while adults from the Russian, Chinese, and other settlements take care of the sick adults and make repairs to the US settlement. Bell enjoys the new food and the companionship of children his own age. There is even a baby and a ping pong table, which are welcome distractions. When the commander, Sai, is well enough, the children return home, and Bell is distraught when Sai says that they must cease all contact with the other nations, since things between them are not going well on earth. This saddens all of the settlers, and they find a way to contact the other communities. Will Bell be able to help Sai understand what happened so his world is larger than one tiny space station?
Strengths: I love Holm's work, and am so glad to see her returning to novels again. Babymouse is great, but I enjoyed Boston Jane (2001) and The Creek (2003) and think she does an excellent job at all manner of genres. Clearly, science fiction (like the 2014 The Fourteenth Goldfish) is something about which she is passionate, and I would love to see more titles like this one. The details of living on Mars are vividly well-researched, and the emotions of living on a planet far from Earth are equally well explored. As I was reading this, I felt like it could have been an episode of Star Trek, which is great praise indeed! The message about getting along with other countries and not being isolated works on a practical level, from Bell's perspective, but is also allegorical enough that teachers will love to use this for class read alouds. In fact, this would  be an excellent choice for the Newbery Award. Science fiction doesn't often win.
Weaknesses: I could have used a little more description of the actual US space station. I had trouble picturing in my mind where Bell hung out. Not essential to the story, but after reading several other books set on Mars, I was curious to see what Holm's take on the facilities would be. 
What I really think: Definitely purchasing, and recommending to fans of Rodkey's We're Not from Here, Swiedler's In the Red, Sylvester's MINRS, Landers' Blastaway, Levy's Seventh Grade vs. The Galaxy and Buzz Aldrin's fantastic nonfiction book, Welcome to Mars. I'm so glad to see a growing list of books covering what it would be like to live on another planet. 

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