When I write a review of a children's book I have to be very careful that I don't let my preconceptions of that book's author color my reading of their newest work. When I read Polly Horvath, I can't assume that it's going to contain parentless children and when I read Kate DiCamillo I can't assume that it's going to feature an animal of some sort. And when I read Willo Davis Roberts I must try as hard as possible not to remember that she wrote one of my favorite books from my childhood, "The Girl With the Silver Eyes". Even if an author wrote a book you lauded, loved, and worshipped as a child, that is no reason to instantly assume you're going to love their next book. It helped that when a co-worker of mine handed me, "The One Left Behind", she told me that it wasn't very good. So I had two simultaneous and conflicting preconceptions battling one another. My love of Roberts' work and a co-worker's pan. As it happens, I enjoyed this last and posthumous book that ended up being Roberts' one hundredth title for children. It's got a bit of melodrama at its core and perhaps a little finagling to make the story work, but all in all this is a book that does the memory of Willo Davis Roberts proud. A kiddie thriller for the mini-Hitchcocks amongst us.
Mandy is a twin. Well... she was a twin. A year ago Angel, her sister, died of food poisoning and left Mandy devastated and alone. Since that time her family has pulled together and gone on with their lives. All except Mandy. With only the family dog to talk to and a bunch of older brothers who have their own problems, she's having a hard time adjusting to going through life solo. When her parents go on a vacation by themselves, it's understood that Mandy will be staying with one of her brothers during the week-end. Through a series of miscommunications, however, she instead ends up left all by herself in her home for the three days that everybody's gone. At first this isn't a problem. She feeds the family dog and tries to be brave in spite of the creepiness of the house. The first night she's there, however, she hears someone downstairs, watching tv and feeding her dog. As the mystery of her intruder grows, Mandy grows more and more self-assured, drawing on memories of her twin for strength. When the book takes a turn towards kidnapping, attempted murder, and chase sequences, it's up to Mandy to keep a cool head and find a way to take care of herself, no matter what.
Roberts fans are going to notice right off the bat the similarities here to the author's previous your-home-is-never-safe story, "Hostage". There are actually several Roberts stand-bys in this book. As an author, she was never afraid to have her characters mention faith or prayer, but without ever drawing attention to the fact or making the book an exercise in preachy didacticism. Also, you never think that the main character is truly safe. When danger comes, you feel it. You can sense the reality of the situation, and it isn't pleasant. You're never entirely safe in Roberts' hands, and that's precisely why kids find her books so doggone compelling.
My co-worker's primary objection to this book (we're both children's librarians) was that Roberts began the book with Mandy thinking just about her twin. Then, when the mystery kicks in, she felt that that particular element was dropped like a hot potato, never to be returned to again. With that in mind, I read the book with some trepidation. And frankly, I think I'll have to respectfully disagree with my colleague on this one. The mystery Mandy faces does indeed distract her from her own self-absorption, true. But Angel is never far from her thoughts. Even when she's in the midst of a troubling or dangerous situation she always finds the time to sit down and consider what her twin would or would not have done if she were there now. Had Roberts failed to address Angel at the end, that would have been a different matter altogether. Fortunately, the book ends with Mandy realizing that she will always be able to draw on her sister's memory for strength. "Nobody would ever be able to change that". So there you go. Each theme Roberts brings up is expertly handled and summed up beautifully by the end.
I sometimes get child patrons who'll come up to my Reference Desk and ask for book recommendations where the situations in the book aren't fantasy. Some kids just don't like magic. They want realistic situations and protagonists who act like real children. Willo Davis Roberts fits such requests to a tee and rarely lets anyone down. It's odd to say, but by her 100th published novel, she never lost her touch. Consider pairing this with a Vivian Alcock book like, "The Sylvia Game", for kicks.