Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer
John Grisham is famous for his two-dozen bestselling adult thrillers, including The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and The Client. According to his website, he has over 250 million books in print worldwide, and has been translated into 29 languages. Now this publishing powerhouse is tackling children’s books.Given his background as a lawyer, and the courtroom dramas featured in his books for grown-ups, it’s no surprise that Grisham’s middle-grade novel is a legal thriller. Theodore Boone, though just 13 years old, is an amateur lawyer respected both at school and at the courthouse. His parents are lawyers, and Theo knows everyone from court clerks to judges. He dreams of being a great lawyer or judge himself, and to this end, purposefully studies the law and doles out unofficial legal advice to troubled classmates.In Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer, the first of a planned series, Theo’s interest in the law draws him to a murder trial. At first he’s a mere interested observer, but circumstances suck him in deeper. It’s a compelling premise, with potential for action and intrigue. Yet while Grisham’s book has its strengths, it doesn’t quite live up to this promise.Theodore Boone starts out slowly. Theo is captivated by a local murder trial and desperate to watch the entire process unfold. He attends one day of the trial on a class fieldtrip, tries to comfort a friend upset by her parents’ divorce, and offers advice to another classmate. But he initially lacks a high-stakes challenge, a goal or problem he must tackle successfully or suffer dire consequences. His desire to watch the trial simply for entertainment is hardly enough to keep the pages turning.In part, this early sluggishness is the product of Grisham’s method of character introduction. Rather than reveal new characters through their action and dialogue, Grisham instead explains their backgrounds and personalities at length from a distant, somewhat detached narrator’s point of view. He spends a page and a half describing a foreign language teacher who never actually appears. Perhaps he is positioning major characters for the rest of the series, but it would be far more involving for them to appear only when they have an active purpose. Avoiding these digressions would also speed the pace.Finally, on page 97, Theo gets a clue about missing evidence in the murder trial, and the reader is engaged. Theo’s challenge is still mainly an intellectual one, with little physical action (a threatening goon isn’t used nearly to his ominous potential), but suspense begins to build as Theo decides how to handle this important—but potentially dangerous—information. His dilemma raises interesting legal and moral questions, and there’s tension inherent in the choices he must make.Subplots touch on other legal issues, from drug charges to animal control. Theo uses computer research and his general knowledge to offer advice, though he can’t fix everything. There’s a touch of Encyclopedia Brown here, though the reader isn’t expected to try solving the case—that’s left to Theo.In the end, Theodore and his family resolve the main plot problem, but Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer leaves us with too many loose threads. The trial isn’t over and a new threat is staged late in the book. Subplots are also left dangling. Presumably, these will be picked up in a sequel, but the book would be more satisfying if this particular adventure were completed in full. The series is scheduled for one book per year, and that’s a long time to ask a young reader to wait to find out what happens. Tightening the first half of this novel would have left plenty of room for developing the rest of the story, and future books could focus on new adventures.On a positive note, Grisham does a fine job of using language that will be accessible to the motivated 9- to 12-year-old target reader. He even manages to smoothly weave in explanations of the legal system—Theo’s Government class attends a day of the murder trial, and Theo, as the resident expert, explains things to his class before and during the trial. Comments like “Not sure why it’s called a bench. It’s more like a throne” keep Theo’s explanations from sounding stilted. The language is probably too challenging for reluctant readers, but many young readers will enjoy the story and learn valuable information about the legal system.Theo is a likable kid, smart and idealistic, but naughty enough to avoid coming across as an arrogant know-it-all. He tries to figure out how to cut class to watch the trial, hacks into courtroom records he really shouldn’t be accessing, and asks his shifty uncle for advice so he can keep secrets from his parents. Young readers will appreciate these flaws, but all in all, Theo is a well-intentioned kid. He volunteers at a homeless shelter (with his parents), offers free legal advice to anyone who asks, and struggles with how to protect an informant and yet use the important information he has received. Theo has more than his fair share of stress, but he handles it well, and asks for adult help when appropriate.Occasionally Grisham makes a major misstep in his attempt to create a realistic young character. He claims that, “Theo did not know of a single thirteen-year-old boy in his class who admitted to having a girlfriend. Just the opposite. They wanted nothing to do with them. And the girls felt the same way.” Theo’s attitude is much more realistic later in the book when he helps a cute classmate who “changed boyfriends every other month” and enjoys her attention. Contradictions like this show that Grisham hasn’t brought his young character fully to life, though perhaps Theo will continue to develop throughout the series.Were this manuscript submitted by an unknown author, an editor would most likely have asked for a major rewrite before considering the story for publication. Because of the Grisham name, Dutton Children’s Books is pushing this book hard, with a first printing of 1 million copies. They are even offering the first chapter as a free download on a special Theodore Boone website. No doubt Grisham’s name will help the series take off. Readers won’t get the ride of a lifetime, but if they’re more interested in intellectual problems than action scenes, they’ll find an entertaining and educational read here.