Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer book cover imageHey, when you were a kid, did you ever feel compelled to seek legal advice? Or play golf?

Yeah, I didn’t think so.

So you can imagine my confusion over why international bestselling author of legal thrillers John Grisham‘s new foray into kid lit has so far scored 3.35 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. Half his book, aimed at eight- to twelve-year-olds, is about things like how to avoid foreclosure, which lawyer in town to phone when your brother-in-law is picked up on a DUI, and what a mistrial is. Oh, and golf.

I’m a grown-up who has sought legal advice, and I was bored to tears. And not just because I’m inclined to prefer kid-lit books like, say, Coraline.

Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer is about Theo, a thirteen-year-old only child whose parents are a tax real-estate lawyer (father) and a divorce lawyer (mother). Theo is so obsessed with the law that his major concern, more than the tough time his female best friend who appears on only a handful of pages is going through, is whether he wants to be a brilliant trial lawyer when he grows up, or a sage judge.

Know what would have made this book great? A good caper. Theo getting caught up with his friends in some mystery or another, that would be solved only when he’s able to put his out-of-the-ordinary legal knowledge to good use.

Unfortunately, the caper in this novel was… not a good one. Theo’s mid-size town is experiencing its first murder trial in recent memory, and though everyone thinks the accused is guilty of murdering his wife, the prosecution has a thin case based only on circumstantial evidence (oh yes, no worries, Theo defines that for us). Mid-story, Theo becomes privy to evidence that’s sure to sway the verdict, and he has to figure out what to do.

That’s it.

No investigations with his motley crew of friends (he doesn’t have one). No snooping around dark offices. No surprises. At all.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a kids’ book that so completely failed to engage my imagination. And as you know, I have a very vivid imagination. My imagination will engage at the merest hint of inspiration. And I just don’t think I’d be alone amongst ten-year-olds in not being remotely interested in court reporting or golf.

So, okay. That’s the plot. I haven’t left much out in my short description. Now the rest of it.

Go read what Charlotte Abbott wrote over on her Book Maven blog about how important it is for an author to show, not tell*. Oh my gods, kids, Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer is about 250 out of 263 pages of telling. I felt like I was slogging through half this book. I was so bored.

The characters were barely caricatures, so thin and so poorly developed I didn’t care much about them at all. Including Theo. I kinda wanted to punch Theo in the face, but then I realized it’s Grisham I wanted to punch in the face. He’s created the dullest kid character I’ve ever encountered. Rather than creating a likable precocious protagonist, he created a shallow know-it-all. He could have done so much better. He could have made Theo, oh I don’t know, laugh. And interact with his peers in important ways. You know, experience believable conflicts. But he didn’t.

In fact, I got the impression Grisham doesn’t really understand kids. His strategy for writing a kids book seemed to be to dilute, simplify, and sometimes outright dumb down a story he might otherwise write very well for adults. Throughout the book, I had the distinct impression the author was smirking at the ten-year-old me, implying, “Oh, you wouldn’t understand this, so we’ll just cut it out or gloss over it.” Too bad he didn’t solve that problem by writing about things the ten-year-old me would understand. If he’d done that, this book might have seemed thick and creamy instead of runny and bland.

It seemed to me Grisham’s goal wasn’t so much to write a good story as it was to write a legal primer for the pre-teen set. Why on earth he thinks this is needed is beyond me. But I couldn’t shake the impression that’s what his goal was. So no surprise that I felt at times like I was reading a text book – a text book that was talking down to me.

Here’s a note I jotted down in a fit of pique: “A better lesson would be to not call women ‘ladies’.” Grisham totally calls all the women in the book ladies. He also casts them in antediluvian roles – court reporter, secretary, receptionist, file clerk, housekeeper, and the one female lawyer (Theo’s mother) is a divorce lawyer who frequently has crying women in her office.

For a master of legal thrillers, Grisham seems to have decided kids can’t handle suspense. He sets the pace in this book like a bad television show tries desperately to create a sense of drama through orchestration when its writers and actors can’t quite pull it off. The one bit of foreshadowing I noticed came out of the blue at the end of a section describing a part of the murder trial. Apropos of nothing, he narrates, “There was something missing in the case, and based on what had already been said in court, Theo suspected that the mystery might never be solved.” People, there was no mention of mystery before this.

Grisham also seems uncomfortable handling race and poverty issues in this book, which is surprising considering his adeptness at treating both those topics in his books for grown-ups. He actually refers to the poorer part of town as “the lesser part.” Sigh.

I read A Time to Kill, Grisham’s first novel and the one some argue to be his best, when I was in high school. My recommendation for anyone thinking of buying Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer for the tween in their life is to wait till they’re fifteen and give them some of Grisham‘s better work instead.

* I’ve enjoyed the first two books in the Millennium trilogy – if I’m tolerant of Stieg Larsson doing so much telling and not so much showing, you can imagine how little showing there is in Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer.

Penguin Canada sent me a review copy of this book, gratis.

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