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A Child's Imagination, Unbound: 'Hollow Earth'

“Imagination can be a dangerous thing” when Barrowman siblings John and Carole unite to tell the first of what promises to become a series of adventures involving Animare, Guardians, and—caught between Good and Evil--Matt and Emily Calder, who may hold the key to the mysteriously malevolent Hollow Earth.

Hollow Earth

Publisher: Aladdin
Length: 400 pages
Authors: John Barrowman and Carole E. Barrowman
Price: $16.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-10

A visit to London’s National Gallery isn’t the typical field trip for twelve-year-old twins Matt and Emily Calder. Instead of waiting patiently during their mother’s meeting, they escape when they become bored—but instead of wandering from room to room to look at the paintings, the siblings draw a picture and imagine themselves into the setting. Once the drawing becomes animated, they enjoy the coolness of a leisurely swim in the River Seine, far from London’s summer heat. Of course, their displeased mother soon finds them and quickly comes up with an excuse to tell the gallery’s guards why her children are drenched.

In many ways, the Calder twins are typical kids. They squabble but are fiercely loyal to each other. They test parental restrictions as they look for adventure. They don’t always understand that rules are meant to ensure their safety. The latter is particularly important because, unlike other highly imaginative preteens, they can telepathically talk with each other and physically journey wherever their imagination takes them. Em explains that “when Matt and I concentrate and imagine things and then draw them, we can make the drawings come alive” (p. 73). This gift marks them as Animare, like their mother, and they use their mystically artistic talent to get into or out of trouble. In Hollow Earth, the first of what promises to become a series of books (as well as a British television series), trouble tends to seek out Matt and Em. To complicate their lives (and the plot), they also have inherited Guardian abilities from their father. In the Barrowmans’ mythology, Guardians protect Animare from the world and vice versa. The twins, who share a unique inheritance, become the focal point in an ongoing war between Good and Evil.

Years ago, Sandie Calder took her children from their homeland, the (fictional) remote Scottish island Auchinmurn, because she feared that even those closest to her children might want to use their power for less-than-good purposes. So she adopted a “hide in plain sight” approach to raise the twins in London, where old friends could help watch over the little Animare. The twins are forced to flee their London home when the “bad guys” discover where they have been living in exile. The National Gallery incident has alerted far more people than the security guards that something strange occurs when the Calder twins work together, and their power is only increasing as they mature. The long-absent Calders return to Auchinmurn in search of safety. In this protective haven the twins not only learn about the dark secret of Hollow Earth—a place where demonic forces await their chance to enter the human world—but about the seductive power of magic. The twins’ grandfather is a Guardian pledged to protect the children, but even he may not be able to subvert those at work to open Hollow Earth.

The Barrowmans’ theme for this book can be summarized with a statement by one of the Council members debating Em and Matt’s fate: “a child’s imagination cannot and should not be bound” (p. 87). Hollow Earth explores the twins’ imagination and creativity as they navigate increasingly difficult circumstances: a new home, challenging and changing relationships with family and friends, and threats that require them to learn more about themselves. The book encourages young readers to envision a journey alongside Matt and Em and gives adult readers a good excuse for revisiting the realm of imagination. Along the way, the Barrowmans develop an increasingly layered world in which the things characters imagine can become real; their mythology gains greater depth as the plot progresses and could become even more intriguing in succeeding novels. The first novel introduces readers to the basics of the governing Council who attempt to control Animare and Guardians, the nature of the Guardian-Animare bond, and the threat posed by Hollow Earth, but we get the feeling that the Barrowmans are only warming up to revelations about a much richer literary cosmos.

The book likely attracts as many adult fans of actor/singer/presenter John Barrowman as young readers looking for a new adventure series, and critics may question whether a book co-authored by a television star has literary value. The Barrowmans, however, are seasoned authors. In addition to their day jobs (John’s latest role is a “mysterious man” in the CW’s Arrow, and Carole is Professor of English and Director of Creative Studies in Writing at Alverno College), the siblings have written two autobiographical books that topped best seller lists, and their newly published science fiction novel, Exodus Code, is the most recent novel in BBC Books’ Torchwood series based upon the television show. (Torchwood’s most famous character, Captain Jack Harkness, is brought to life on screen by John Barrowman.) Carole’s vivid descriptions, coupled with her parental and professorial experience in guiding young people, suffuse this fantasy with truth about the power (and frustration) of familial relationships. Like the Calder siblings whose stories they tell, Carole and John Barrowman pool their talents to create well-drawn characters thrust into spooky situations. As a result, Hollow Earth is a book that parents and children can share.

Readers also should like the geographic detail in which the Barrowmans describe both real-world destinations such as Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Gallery or London’s Trafalgar Square and the imaginary Scottish islands on which much of the story takes place. The duo include numerous references to a wide range of art, which may pique readers’ interest in a particular painting or artist. Information about the paintings—imaginary or real—referenced in the novel is included in the book’s website.

Although the UK edition was released by Buster Books earlier this year, Aladdin, a division of Simon & Schuster, publishes the US edition on October 30. The story remains the same, but the US edition sports a new cover that features Em and Matt and a literal depiction of a window to their imagination through which a mythic creature leaps toward readers. (This cover also illustrates an important moment in the story.) Hollow Earth, the first adventure featuring the Calder twins, will be followed by The Bone Quill, scheduled for UK publication in February 2013. If this publication pattern continues, the second novel should make its way to American readers later in the year.

The only problem with this initial volume is that, like all stories planned to be epic in scope, not all questions about the Calders or Hollow Earth are answered by the time readers reach the last page. Several important plot points—such as what has happened to Matt and Em’s mother or whether their father has been in or out of the picture during the twins’ childhood—hint at significant story developments yet to come.

In her 2008 Harvard commencement address, author J K Rowling explained that “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” Although the Calders’ adventures are not yet as well developed as Harry Potter’s, with Hollow Earth, the Barrowmans succeed in getting readers to envision a magical, artistic world that leads new protagonists into the age-old struggle between Good and Evil. As the authors write in Acknowledgments, they are thrilled to share the people and places that formerly existed only in their imaginations and to help them “come alive in yours.” As long as the Barrowmans continue to do that, I imagine that they will have a faithful readership looking forward to the next adventure with Emily and Matt.


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