So it has come to this, you say: post-apocalyptic fiction for middle grade readers. Really, you say? We're not going to wait until they're at least twelve or thirteen before giving them main characters who have to make their way by scavenging the wreckage of our world's bad decisions?
Yup. And about frickin time, I say.
Many people will say that post-apocalyptic sci-fi is too harsh, too hopeless for younger readers. I so firmly disagree. Middle grade fiction has always emotionally challenged kids. Parents die. Siblings die. Kids become homeless, or are abandoned, or have to move away from all their friends. War happens. Postapocalyptic fiction just rolls all that together into one plotline.
Ha, kidding. Mostly.
I think many kids, perhaps most kids, are not all that sensitive to grandly dreadful concepts like the end of civilization. I've always found that intimate sorrows, such as the death of a pet, bother kids much more than big-time catastrophes. Look at Harry Potter - most kids bear the deaths of Dumbledore, Sirius, even George with equanimity, but man, when [mmm-mmphrrm] dies? (You know who I mean if you've finished the books) That death destroys some kids.
In addition, a postapocalyptic environment gives an author so very much freedom. All those pesky givens of a modern kid's life - cell phones, parents, the unlikeliness that he will be any good at knife fighting - are erased in one mushroom-cloud-shaped phrase. Or word.
And that word is "after."
In Fisher's version of 'after,' he is born, abruptly and tween-aged and alone, in the midst of a battle. He is a pod-grown human who has been in suspended animation for decades, left behind in an heavily fortified ark along with dozens of other species to repopulate the Earth after it has had a chance to heal from the catastrophes that killed off the elder race of men.
Got that? Fisher's Ark is destroyed by the robot defenses that were built to protect it - after so many years, the artificial intelligences have decayed or reprogrammed themselves to the point that they represent a danger to all living creatures. Fisher, assisted by a maintenance robot whose singleminded goal is to help Fisher survive, quickly decides that he must find the other Arks like his, that his survival is meaningless without other humans.
And so commences the postapocalyptic road trip. I once read a review of The Road that explained that, sure, it's a postapocalyptic novel, but at its heart, it is an adventure novel. The Boy at the End of the World is just like The Road, in that it is a picaresque adventure, but with more weird stuff and less cannibalism. And no shopping cart. Fisher could have really used a shopping cart.
Fisher and his robot pal, Click, meet up with a cloned juvenile woolly mammoth that Fisher names Protein (he does get pretty hungry in this book), and journey through jungle and desert, adapting and learning, suffering setbacks and encountering surprises. Surprises such as a race of genetically engineered weaponized prairie dogs. There are flashes of humor - when Fisher repairs Click's leg with a twisted root, Click reluctantly agrees that it will restore him to basic mobility. Fisher replies, "You were only ever basically mobile anyway."
Some postapocalyptic novels are so focused on their perils that nobody's ever permitted a smile, But frankly, I find any novel with an adolescent or preadolescent protagonist that doesn't include a couple wisecracks to be unrealistic.
There's hope too, as well as humor. Hope, imagination, and humor - I think that's what it takes to scale a postapocalyptic road novel down to middle grade. I am so glad that Greg van Eekhout did it. When a boy and his pal take to the Mississippi River on a raft in any novel, I have to confess, one of my red flags go up. But in this case I felt only a nostalgic fondness. I love that van Eekhout calls back to the original boys' road novel in this book, set after the end of the world.