'The world is filled with millions of miracles that no one sees.' (p 230)
Jumping the reading queue
Very occasionally it happens that (even when I am in the middle of reading something, and very much enjoying it) I pick up a new book, just to see what its like, and end up not putting it down again until I have finished the whole thing. It just happened again. Maybe it was the tabloid headline masquerading as a book title that got me going. More likely it was the very striking cover image. (I think that the intense close-up version of David Litchfiel's super illustration works brilliantly on the UK paperback). Mostly though, it was the story and its telling that hooked me straight in and never let go.
Of course, the author's name had a lot to do with it too. Ross Montgomery writes highly original and imaginative books that are hugely entertaining, often riotously funny, and more than anything, what I call 'kid friendly'. (Which is a quality the world of children's reading very much needs.) They are easy, comfortable reads for the young to become engrossed in, and yet they also offer a good deal to think about too. They reflect the world that children know and need to know, as well as the sort of world to which they like to escape. Ross Montgomery seems to have a quiet genius for understanding (or remembering) how kids think and feel, as well as what interests and entertains them. His books are exactly the sort to help turn children who can read into children who do. He has already written a growing little pile of such books, and yet I think this one could be his best yet.
Max's millions are, in fact, not pounds, dollars or euros, they are, rather, millions of tiny people living in their own miniature 'kingdom', spread across the floor of a room in Max's school.
There is a happy tradition of tiny people stories threaded through the history of children's literature, almost all of them delightful When my son was much younger, one of his bedtime favourites was Raymond Briggs' hilarious graphic story of The Man. And there are, of course, real classics, like Lynne Reid Banks' The Indian in the Curboard and Mary Norton's Borrowers. I can't think of any though that have so many little folk as this, or ones that are quite so microscopic. Ross Montgomery's latest creations are a delightful and innovative addition to the species. They are often hilarious too, but then so is the whole book. (Have I said that already? If not I should have. It is highly pertinent.) Possibly the closest to these particular miniature creations are Terry Pratchett 's The Carpet People, but that is a very different book, albeit equally delightful and also very funny indeed.
Hearing and understanding
However, there are other important elements too, in the writing of Max and the Millions , which add up to its being such a fine addition to this little canon. Not least, by a long way, is the creation of Max himself. The engaging protagonist of this story, is profoundly deaf, a condition that renders him important in so many ways. Books which promote understanding and inclusion, either directly or (probably better) by implication, are thankfully becoming more common. However a mainstream children's book featuring a deaf child in its 'lead role' is still too rare, so this one is to be most warmly welcomed. Children who are differently abled crucially need to be able to find others like themselves in the stories they read. Just as importantly hearing youngsters need to see deaf children quite naturally and properly playing an important role in fiction, so that they can learn to see them in the same way in real life. Further, this portrait of Max, and his relationship with his new American friend Sasha, have much to teach about how we can all most helpfully relate to deaf peope, not least by treating them as deaf, and not as stupid - or even as not there at all. Although what happens to Max is often very funny indeed, it is never his deafness itself that is the source of the humour. He is so well written by Ross Montgomery that we relate to him as a person first and as a deaf person second - and both with warmth and understanding. He becomes our friend as much as Sacha's. And that in itself makes this book very special.
A gentle intro to narrative complexity
There are other things too. The story of Max and the Millions is largely told through a double narrative with Max's direct experiences interleaved with a separate account of what is happening in the miniature world. To this is added occasional further complexity with quotes from a supposed 'Book of the Floor'. This is all kept very clear for young readers , through the undoubted skill of the writing reinforced by the use of different typography for each perspective of narrative. It is very valuable for young readers to be introduced to such fictional devices in a way that is still fully appropriate and accessible to them. It begins to prepare them, gently, and probably even unconsciously, for the approaches of later, more sophisticated fiction, wonderfully supporting their growth as readers.
Yet, within this relatively sophisticated structure, Max and the Millions remains a twisting, looping rollercoaster of a read, soaring and plunging with as many thrills as giggles and as many screeches as chortles. Ross Montgomery's plotting is that of a true master of storytelling and will lead its gripped young readers delightedly and inexorably towards its satisfying (and edifying) conclusion.
The little things are big things
In amongst all the hilarity, adventure and excitement, this is a book which gives young readers plenty of important messages too, without ramming them down young throats; plenty to think over, but without them feeling preached at. It emphasises the value of peace over war, of cooperation over conflict; it graphically demonstrates the corrupting potential of power; it promotes the consoling, and indeed redemptive, view that we can make amensds for our all-too-human mistakes. More than than anything, however, it highlights the importance of the little things in life, the significance of the 'butterfly effect', the pertinence of detail. Literally and metaphorically, it celebrates the tiny things that happen in our world that are so easy to overlook and undervalue.
'The world is filled with miracles which no one sees, ' says one of the characters. (p 261) It is an important thing for our children to know too. And, as well as entertaining them grandly, this book will help them to be more aware of it. Ross Montgomery's wise closing words in his 'Acknowledgements' are, 'Take care of the small things - they make up,the entire universe.'
Max and the Millions, is, it has to be said, relatively dominated by boy characters. However there have (thank goodness) been so many recent novels for children with strong girl leads, that this doesn't really matter - or may even be good for balance. In any case there is at least a subsidiary character here (Ivy from amongst the 'millions') who is more than feisty and effective enough to keep the flag flying for 'rebel girls'.
My high street Book of the Month
Weirdly, the UK's major high street chain bookshop has just made the same novel its 'Children's Book of the Month' for two months running, February and March, as though there were nothing new good enough in March to succeeded their February selection. I for one would certainly have singled out Max and the Millions for this month instead.
US readers can be pleased that this super book is being published over there very soon (mid March from Wendy Lamb Books). I will have to buy myself their hardback too. It is in paperback only over here, and this is a title well worth adding to my long-term collection. It may not have pretentions to great literature, but it is a fine children's book. Ross Montgomery is making a very substantial contribution to encouraging and developing children's reading - and so to their lives.
(However, one will suffice!)