When 12-year-old Ted Gerson has his first conversation with his namesake—his mother’s beloved Uncle Ted—it’s on the man’s deathbed. And it’s there that Ted receives what turns out to be instructions on entering into an elaborate, real-life “game”—the concealment method of choice for his great-uncle’s legacy. With his penchant for escape-room puzzle games, and the help of his best friend and a new-to-town genius girl, Ted aims to discover what possible treasure his enigmatic WW2 veteran relative left behind for him to find.
What I Liked:
I truly enjoyed what little we got to see of Uncle Ted. We receive just a glimpse of his gallows humor and tough, crotchety determination for there to be some justification to the hermit-like isolation of his final years. The incorporation of his WW2 combat regiment and is also a huge strongpoint—and hopefully a lingering point of interest for young readers.
Ted is half Japanese and half Jewish, and his ethnic identity confusion is addressed at some length. There was a definite pride and focus on the Japanese side of his heritage—but that was consistent with the plot. And the Jewish element didn’t fall completely by the wayside. There was even a very realistic mentioning of the elitism he encounters at one point over not being Jewish enough, in the estimation of one of his classmates. Just as with the historical elements, the issue seemed to be handled with respectful intent.
While the book is being billed as something for Ready Player One fans, it has some definite advantages in the realm of age-appropriateness. The language is kept mild, there are no sexual references, and there’s no effort put toward worldview indoctrination.
What Left Me Wanting More:
I personally felt the comparison to Ready Player One was a marketing stretch. While Click Here To Start does pay homage to a relatively ancient class of digital games, it’s genre focus is much more narrow and it ultimately lacks most of the 80’s nostalgia factor that garnered RPO its enthusiastic following. It is also taking place in a base contemporary setting, whereas RPO goes through some semi-significant worldbuilding to portray a dystopian near-future with heavy emphasis on online interface tech.
Readers will be left with a sizable logic hole, as the digital element to this grand scale puzzle is never really explained. (i.e. Ted is given clues and walkthrough opportunities via a mysterious online version of the real life puzzle he’s attempting to solve, but there isn’t a satisfying culprit offered up. This could possibly be leaving things open for successive books, but there wasn’t much clarity on whether that would get tied up in a later installment. It feels more like a forgotten and oddly voyeuristic thread.)
There was also the looming opportunity to share more about the 442nd Regiment—the most decorated combat team in WW2, and monumentally comprised entirely of Japanese Americans. I would have loved to read something of Uncle Ted’s thoughts on his Regiment, their missions, or the treatment of Japanese Americans back home in the internment camps—anything to help me as a reader connect more with the real and fascinating history there, rather than just the escape game element of the plot. But alas, no personalizing thoughts or writings come up. (Granted there is enough factual info offered that readers can look up more to verify its authenticity, but it didn’t really evoke an emotional response or motive to do so.) I can’t help but feel like it was a missed opportunity to subtly engage middle grade readers with more empathy and interest in historical events.
The hardest part for me was the lack of attachment I was able to form with any of the characters. Our main character, Ted, hates reading, is excessively judgmental, and distressingly low in empathy. I could forgive the general oblivious 12-year-old self-contentedness, but not the cruel and hypocritical behavior toward Isabel. He dislikes her on sight and deems her: "A nerd girl. A weirdo." All because she likes to read. (Ted, on the other hand, is video-game obsessed and admits it's pretty much all he's good at.) When he finds out the girl he’s been bashing has recently lost her mother, he has –zero- emotional reaction to this. None. It doesn't even seem to slow down his attitude problem.
Worse still, readers start to realize many chapters later that his snap judgments about Isabel are generally correct. Given time to get to know her, she comes off as increasingly smug, superior, and anal-retentive. I’m afraid those like me—who were hoping for Ted to be proven wrong and forced to reassess his biases—will be sorely disappointed by the lack of character development.
While this book appeals to a largely niche audience, the pleasantly readable prose has the potential to draw in more hesitant readers who happen to enjoy real and/or virtual puzzles.