Eighth-grader Theo Boone is a courtroom junkie. Both of his parents are lawyers, and Theo knows that eventually, he wants to work with the law -- he just doesn't know if he wants to be a lawyer or a judge. Until then, he has to content himself with attending as many trials as possible, giving legal advice to his classmates and giving guest lectures in his Government class.
Now, though, there's been a murder in wholesome Strattenburg, and due to a lack of evidence, the murderer is going to walk -- unless Theo Boone is able to find a way to protect the identity of a secret witness AND use said witness' testimony.
And there you have it: Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer.
As you've probably already predicted, I want to punch this book in the face.
It didn't help that I had an attitude from minute one. The Bestselling Author Breaking Into The YA/J Market trend has been annoying from the first, and the TITLE is just... awful. But. I was willing to give both of those things a pass, because sometimes Bad Titles obscure Good Books, and sometimes Big Name Adult Authors do make a smooth transition into the YA/J world. And sometimes we even end up happy that they decided to wander over.
This time? Not so much.
The back cover promises "high intensity legal drama". Of those four words, only one is accurate: legal. There is very definitely no high intensity, and certainly no drama¹. Unless we're using drama as the opposite of comedy, in which case, I guess we could call it drama. A Lesson on the Ins and Outs of the Legal System would have been a more accurate description, but that's not going to get loads of people to snap a book up, regardless of age.
Readers who have become accustomed to middle grade crime fighters who are comfortable Taking Action (like our much-beloved Sammy Keyes) might be taken aback by the lack of actual Action on Theo's part -- the information pretty much falls into his lap and SPOILER Theo ultimately puts it all in the hands of the grown-ups, which is the most realistic solution, but leaves quite a lot to be desired, excitement-wise END SPOILER.
Theo Boone might work for readers who love Encyclopedia Brown but who are ready for something a bit longer -- though, if I'm remembering correctly (and I should be, considering I read them each 80 bazillion times), the Encyclopedia Brown books featured both more drama, more independent action from main character AND more trust in his own abilities from himself as well as from adults.
"It wasn't a romance; they were too young for 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 had been warned that things would change, and dramatically, but that seemed unlikely."
I don't know what eighth graders John Grisham has been hanging around, but they clearly aren't from this planet. Also, it seemed like he was going for the Olde Fashionedy Children's Book Omniscient Storyteller voice, but it came across, to me, as irritating, condescending and inconsistent. Not to mention really fond of Telling, rather than Showing.
The irritating shows up throughout, but here's an example of the condescending nature of the voice. On page 19, about Theo's Government teacher: "He always addressed them as "men" and for thirteen-year-olds there was no greater compliment." Just... STOP IT. If there is no greater compliment -- WHICH I HIGHLY DOUBT -- than any thirteen-year-old reading it will already know that, and therefore, John Grisham, you don't have to spell it out for him. In addition to the condescending narrator, the adult characters tend towards Condescending Assiness as well, though I'm sure that an argument could be made for realism there.
The inconsistency also shows up throughout. The example that lines up with the Disinterest in Girls shows up a bit later:
"Hallie was distraught, in tears, and Theo couldn't help but notice how cute she was even when she was crying. It was a big moment for Theo."
""Why don't you call me sometime?" she asked.
Why? Now that was a good question. Probably because she was too busy talking to all the other boys. She changed boyfriends every other month. He'd never even thought of calling her.
"I'll do that," he said. Be he knew he wouldn't. He wasn't exactly looking for a girlfriend, and besides, April would be devastated if he began chasing a flirt like Hallie."
The narrator Tells the reader that Theo doesn't like girls, but then Theo's Behavior doesn't reflect that. Now, the bit on page 142 could just be a clumsy attempt at character development -- that's how I read the "It was a big moment for Theo", at any rate.
IF NOT FOR, AND ALSO, BUT.
The passage from page 153? About Hallie "changing boyfriends every month"? What's that all about? WHO ARE ALL OF THESE BOYFRIENDS, IF NONE OF THE BOYS ARE INTERESTED IN GIRLS? AND HOW OBNOXIOUSLY OLDE FASHIONEDY GRANDFATHERY² IS THE "A FLIRT LIKE HALLIE" line? What is this, the freaking 1920s? ALSO, IF NO ONE IS INTERESTED IN ROMANCE, WHY WOULD APRIL BE DEVASTATED?
I get what he was going for with the Theo/April relationship, I really do. But it wasn't consistent with what the narrator Told me. And so it added to the sloppy vibe.
Anyway, a similar issue arises in regards to Theo's relationship with his uncle. The narrator Informs us that Theo actively dislikes his uncle. And then there is nothing in their interaction that really backs that assertion up -- there are moments of irritation, sure, but nothing that supported the level of Theo's supposed negative feeling. AND, when Theo's got a problem, where does he go? Straight to his uncle. THAT. MAKES. NO. SENSE.
There was nothing in this book that suggested that we were dealing with an unreliable narrator, or even a sly one who'd say one thing while meaning the opposite -- so I was left feeling that the author just wasn't paying attention to what he was writing. Or that he assumed his audience wouldn't notice the ridiculousity of what he was throwing at them.
The story takes place in Strattenburg, a small city that I couldn't help but picture as Salem, the setting from Days of Our Lives -- because strangely, it's small enough that everyone seems to know each other, small enough that Theo smiles at AND IDENTIFIES every single person he sees on the way to the courthouse, but big enough to house a large courthouse, a pretty serious golf course and multiple gated communities, a large homeless population and a large population of illegal immigrants. It felt bizarrely like an idyllic childhood hometown that grew into a small city due to plot requirements.
Lastly -- and due to the fact that I dogeared almost EVERY SINGLE PAGE as an Annoyance Remembrance Aid, I could go on ad nauseum, but my lunchbreak is almost over and I really need to wind this up -- this last bit from pages 25-6 made me want to bang my head into a wall:
It was a bright class in a strong public school. Justin was by far the best athlete, though he couldn't swim as fast as Brian. Ricardo beat them all at golf and tennis. Edward played the cello, Woody the electric guitar, Darren the drums, Jarvis the trumpet, Joey had the highest IQ and made perfect grades. Chase was the mad scientist who was always a threat to blow up the lab. Aaron spoke Spanish, from his mother's side, German from his father's, and English, of course. Brandon had an early morning paper route, traded stocks online, and planned to be the first millionaire in the group.
Naturally, there were two hopeless nerds and at least one potential felon.
The class even had its own lawyer, a first for Mr. Mount.
Now, granted, this is probably a personal issue rather than a true literary issue, BUT. Was the nerd thing REALLY necessary? It just seems... mean-spirited. And kind of ridiculous, considering the fact that Theo, Mr. Mount's "star", always has his trusty laser pointer with him in case he's called on to give an impromptu lecture to the class: "Mr. Mount was known to be a bit slack with his class preparations on Fridays, and he needed Theo to fill in the gaps" (175). If THAT doesn't scream 'nerd' to most eighth grade boys, well... I guess I've lost touch.
Which is certainly possible.
But there seemed to be quite a lot of vaguely mean-spirited-ness towards any character who was, I dunno, outside of the wholesome white bread mainstream. (OTHER than the homeless kids who Theo tutors in English and their SPOILER illegal immigrant secret witness golf course employee cousin END SPOILER.) But Theo's uncle is kind of a hippie and he lost his license for sketchy lawyering, and his friend April's parents are GASP! "an eccentric antiques dealer" and a goat cheese-maker who apparently "torment" her.
Anyway. That kind of weirded me out.
VERDICT: AVOID. AVOID, AVOID, AVOID.
¹Even though the murderer has a hired thug who stares daggers at Theo ALL OF THE TIME. But NEVER ACTUALLY TAKES ANY SORT OF ACTION, SO I DON'T KNOW WHAT THE CRAP HE WAS GETTING PAID FOR.
²Oh, speaking of: Theo's favorite television show? Perry Masonre-runs. I'm just sayin'.