Review by C.J. Bunce
Originally self-published via Kickstarter as With Kind Regards from Kindergarten, a new steampunk children’s chapter book arrives at bookstores this month from Insight Kids, renamed The Clockwork War. Bookended by a grandmother trying to persuade a hesitant granddaughter to give kindergarten a try, in the style of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, Kline creates a fantasy tale about an orphanage, two friends, and a giant oak tree to nudge the granddaughter along. Addressing those time-honored angsts of childhood: bullies, advertising, commercialism, roaches, the lack of monsters under one’s bed, plastics, progress for progress’ sake, soot and smog, and henchmen, author Adam Kline assembles a clockwork fantasyland in a fable style pointing young ones to the inevitable lesson that at some point everyone must “rise to the occasion.”
Karlheinz Intergarten and Leopold Croak begin their story under the tutelage of Miss Understood and her orphanage, both fast friends with active imaginations. Miss Understood will be likeable for kids, full of mixed-up (but apt) sayings like “the early nerd gets the worm,” “all’s well that smells well,” and “money can fry happiness.” While playing in the giant oak tree during a storm, Leopold is struck by a lightning bolt, and loses his imagination. Lonely when Leopold no longer wants to play, Karlheinz (Karl) leaves town to become apprentice to a clockmaker, whose companion is a clockwork mouse named Pim. Many years later Karl becomes a brilliant clockmaker in his own right, and when his mentor dies he returns with Pim to the town of his youth to find it dying and polluted, driven into the ground by the richest man in town: his old friend Leopold, who has lost sight of fun and friendship and focuses only on his corporation and his moneymaking, popular line of electronic toy girl dolls. He has seemingly forgotten the needs of his real daughter, who is perched above town away from all others, allergic to everything but cucumber tea.
“Some rats are evil, Pim,” sighed Karl. “I won’t argue that. But they’re almost never born that way.” And this is true–of rats, of cats, of dogs, and everything else. It’s especially true of people.
A clockwork fly and mouse, a hungry dog, cats’ fear of any loud noise, a giant thug, a pirate ship, and a dragon all come together under Karl’s guidance to teach lessons to both Leopold and the granddaughter at home hearing the tale. Kline pulls themes and styles from a variety of classic and modern sources, from Pinocchio to Edward Scissorhands, from Aesop’s Fables to the Grimm television series and Mouse Guard, and from The Invisible Man and Hugo to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
With new illustrations by artist Dan Whisker, Kline assembles a tale directed at young kids. It’s to be read by some older folk, as it’s written at an older kids’ level than the lead target character readying for kindergarten, which seems most likely the target audience for the story.
The Clockwork War is full of positive themes for kids, a fine hero character in Karl, and even better dialogue for the book’s villain that will echo afterward in the voice of Hiddleston, Cumberbatch, or Mendelsohn. It doesn’t reach as far as it could as for rounding out its audience: with four active boy characters and the only girl character locked-up sick for most of the story, it would have benefitted by swapping in another heroic girl or two. Still, this book will be good nighttime read-aloud material for adult fans of the above influences.
Kline and Whisker’s The Clockwork War is available in hardcover now here at Amazon from Insight Kids.