An escaped panther, mutants, a quirky family, Commies, Diablo the 3-speed bike, bomb shelters, an unhealthy fascination with the laundry chute and The End of the World.
It's summer, 1962, and Rex Norton-Norton has recently moved to Ottawa with his parents, three older sisters (Cassiopeia, Letitia and Annie Oakley) and two younger siblings (Flora Bella and The Sausage). In a little over a week, he will be eleven years old. He spends much of his time doing Paint by Numbers:
Paint by Numbers is like grownup art: seascapes and sunsets and horses and mountains, just like the paintings in the National Art Gallery up on Elgin Street. My oldest sister, Cassiopeia, took me there because Mum made her. She hung around near a portrait of some famous woman while I went and looked at all the battles and tigers killing horses and Jesus or somebody with thousands of arrows in him.
The National Art Gallery is great. One day I hope one of my Paint by Numbers will hang there.
and wondering why there aren't any kids his age in the whole neighborhood.
Not that finding other kids his age will necessarily result in a new group of friends -- before Ottawa, the Norton-Nortons lived in Vancouver, and before that, in England:
The picture was taken in England, where we lived until I was almost four. It's easy to tell it was England because I'm wearing a tie. My mother made me wear a tie and flannel shorts and kneesocks even when we moved to Canada.
A tie is a lot of extra work. A kid wants you to go out and play and you have to say, "All right. Just let me put on my tie."
That getup attracted bullies like an old cup of chocolate attracts mold. I got beaten up because of the way I dressed. Well, what really happened was I said garage as if it rhymed with carriage and I guess the bully didn't like the way it sounded. So my accent was the problem, but I don't think the tie helped.
One night, when Rex is walking the family's lawnchair-eating beast of a dog, he sees Something Odd. And he begins to wonder if there's a sinister answer to the Lack of Kids His Age question.
At times, Rex Zero reminded me a bit of a Casson family story, just a bit more surreal*. They both feature quirky families, but it was more than that. Like Hilary McKay, Tim Wynne-Jones doesn't play the over-explanation game -- things happen, but our Rex isn't one of those Wise Beyond His Years types, and he doesn't miraculously mature enough to Understand The Emotions of the Older Characters. Which I personally think is a good thing.
When one of his older sisters has a meltdown about the Cold War, he's more scared of her than of WWIII. When discussing the possibility outcomes of WWIII, he and his friends are more concerned that they might end up watching Russian television (soldiers, potatoes and ballet, horror of horrors!) in their bomb shelters for twelve years than... the fact that they're talking about living in bomb shelters for twelve years.
Good one. I can't believe I've waited this long to read a Tim Wynne-Jones book -- and I'm especially glad that the one I started on just happened to be heavily based on his own childhood.
Try it on fans of the Cassons, as well as on on adult kid-lit readers. I'd imagine that the Living With Big Fear aspect of life in 1962 will resonate, regardless of age.
*Though I think that the surreal feeling came more from the use of the present tense than from the actual events in the book. The present tense usually tends to throw me a little. (Not to say that the early sixties weren't surreal, of course. From what I've heard, anyway.)