Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab – Book Review

25 February 2014 by GrrlScientist, posted in Book review

SUMMARY: this engaging children's mystery is solved by twin amateur sleuths who invent and build several science-y gadgets to aid them in their quest.

The premise that underpins Bob Pflugfelder's and Steve Hockensmith's children's thriller, Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab: A Novel with Electromagnets, Burglar Alarms, and Other Gadgets You Can Build Yourself [Quirk Books, 2013; Amazon UK; Amazon US/kindle US], is interesting: this mystery is a mechanism to get children excited by science by showing them how to build some of the gadgets featured in the book. As the story progresses, the children construct a number of inventions that readers can also build for themselves by following instructions in the book and using items that most people have on hand.

The summer holidays have just begun. We first meet Nick and Tesla, 11-year-old fraternal twins, in a taxi at the San Francisco International airport. Although they are on their own, these two are not runaways. Their parents, experts on soybeans, had suddenly been shipped off to Uzbekistan to work on a breakthrough method for irrigating soy beans, so the children were shipped halfway across the country to the small Californian town of Half Moon Bay, where they are placed under the care of their uncle, Newt.

Uncle Newt is a peculiar guy: he is somewhere between a stereotypical "mad scientist" and an equally stereotypical "absent-minded professor". Of course, like all stereotypical scientists, he keeps a lab in his basement. Considering that his specialities include benign neglect of children and not-so-benign inventions that destroy the neighbours' property, it's somewhat surprising that Uncle Newt hadn't been arrested and imprisoned years before the children arrived on his doorstep.

Nick and Tesla, who barely even recall their uncle, have no friends their age in the neighborhood to entertain them. Bored, they take up Uncle Newt's invitation of (nearly) free run in his lab and build a rocket. This rocket's test flight goes wrong when it lands in the yard of a nearby house. Worse, the rocket manages to catch Tesla's pendant necklace -- a special gift from their parents before their departure -- and carries it along for the ride. So of course, the children have to get it back.

But this is no ordinary house. As Nick observes: "It's not like the kind of people who'd live in a creepy old mansion with a fence around it and guard dogs the size of horses would mind if a couple strange kids decided to wander around their property." [p. 58]

Undeterred by these obstacles, the twins come up with a plan to distract the dogs so Nick can sneak over the fence and search for Telsa's pendant. Then -- as if retrieving the necklace isn't compelling enough -- whilst looking around the yard, Nick spots a pale girl in a nightgown peering down at him from an upstairs window. He mistakes her for a ghost. And thus begins Nick and Tesla's madcap adventure. Who is this mysterious girl? Why is a seemingly abandoned mansion guarded by Rottweilers? How can the children retrieve Tesla's necklace? Will their inventions help them achieve their goals and make sense of all these enigmas?

I particularly enjoyed Tesla because she's a strong female character -- one of the few whom I can recall from all the children's books that I've read this past year. The dialogue was engaging and believable and although the story was somewhat improbable, it did make sense. But I was disappointed that all the adults were portrayed either as incompetent, stupid or threatening. The illustrations are simple drawings and are rather uninspired to my eye. Surprisingly, the 237-page book lacks both a table of contents and an index, making it difficult to quickly find or refer to those science-y projects.

Throughout the book, Nick and Tesla invent and build five items that are essential to advancing the plot. Simple instructions are provided in the book so readers can construct these contraptions themselves. These objects -- a low-tech rocket and launcher, a Mentos & soda rocket "dog distractor", a semi-invisible nighttime van tracker, a Christmas-is-over intruder alert system (a burgler alarm), and an electromagnet -- are made from common items that most people have lurking about the house, with the exception of PVC piping and a black light.

After finishing this book, astute readers will realise that there still is one overarching question unanswered: what is happening with Nick and Telsa's parents? What are they doing and why haven't they contacted the twins as they promised? Ah, this mystery will be addressed in the sequel(s).

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"Science Bob" Pflugfelder is a science teacher for the stars -- child actors, to be precise. He also has appeared on television programs and some of his experiments have been featured in several magazines including People, Popular Science, Disney's Family Fun, and WIRED magazine. Bob teaches science outside of Boston and develops experiments and videos to share with his website visitors. He can be found on twitter: @ScienceBob.

Steve Hockensmith is a writer who has written a number of children's mystery books and "romzomcoms" (romantic comedies with zombies). He also works as a journalist who writes about pop culture and the film industry for a number of publications including The Hollywood Reporter, The Chicago Tribune and Newsday. Steve currently resides in the San Francisco Bay area with his family. He can be found on twitter: @MrHockensmith

NOTE: this piece is slightly edited from the original, which was written by GrrlScientist and published by the Guardian.

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Grrlscientist can also be found on on her eponymous Guardian blog, and she sometimes lurks on social media; facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Pinterest. She's quite active on twitter: @GrrlScientist

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