Author: Elizabeth Atkinson

Publisher: Carolrhoda Books

ISBN: ISBN-10: 1467781169; ISBN-13: 978-1467781169

Elizabeth Atkinson’s wide and varied background as a children’s librarian, English teacher and fiction writer, among other worthwhile pursuits, has placed her in an ideal position to be the outstanding author of children’s fiction that she is today. Her latest offering in this genre is The Island of Beyond, which tells of an IT savvy, but otherwise socially inept, eleven-year-old boy, Martin, who is sent to live with his great-aunt in Maine for a month during the school vacation.

As with her many other works for children of this age, including The Sugar Mountain Snow Ball and I, Emma Freke, Atkinson’s intimate knowledge of the middle schooler and their needs enables her to empathize with them to such an extent that the reader immediately becomes drawn into both the emotional and the physical surroundings of her protagonist of the moment. It is certain that many a child growing up in the suburbs will be able to relate to Martin’s feelings of social isolation and dysfunctionality that lead him, in an effort to win his parents’ approval, to play with his father’s toy soldiers on which the latter doted in his youth. However, the way in which Martin transforms them into an urban landscape is an indication not only of his seeking to reassure himself with the familiar, but also the narrowness of his own perspective in the opening pages of The Island of Beyond.

Atkinson’s lack of prescriptive gendering and stereotyping is commendable, in that she sees the older generation (in the form of Martin’s parents) as to a certain extent having expectations of Martin as a boy, while, from her authorial perspective, allowing him the freedom to develop in his own way. The marked change in his way of looking at life comes about when he encounters another boy of the same age, appropriately nicknamed Solo, on the island that forms the rustic setting for most of this novel. Solo, growing up in a rural setting, has had the opportunity to become very much more in tune with his environment, in which he is instinctively at ease, than is Martin (whom Solo fittingly and wittily addresses as “Martian”).

Only when Martin encounters the unknown in the backwoods of Maine can he truly come into his own―it comes as little surprise to learn that Atkinson’s familiarity with such a landscape is based, at least in part, on her currently splitting her time between the North Shore of Massachusetts and the western mountains of Maine. The power of questioning, both of self and others, plays a pivotal role in Martin’s increasing self-awareness. He has first to be challenged by Solo and by his great-aunt’s housekeeper/companion to participate in physical activities with which, up to this point, he has not been required to deal, before he can start to explore and understand his place within the wider society and environment. Martin’s relationship with Solo is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer’s interactions with Huckleberry Finn, with the circumscribed conventional being counterpoised to the unconventional and anarchic.

In short, the deeper meaning of this novel is profound, and it deserves a place in modern children’s literature. The major characters are an interesting blend of old and young, so that even an older person should enjoy reading The Island of Beyond, and perhaps recalling their own childhood experiences along the way.