John Grisham is most famous for his books, and the films made from his books, about the criminal law system in the USA. The majority of Grisham’s books are for adults, but there is a series about a teenage boy called Theodore Boone, which are written specifically for children.
The first in the series is simply called Theodore Boone.
Here in the UK it was one of the books which was being given out as part of the World Book Night project. I was given a copy, which I needed to read and vet before putting into our primary school library.
I was unsure as to whether it would be suitable, having envisioned it as being quite gritty and rather violent, given that the story revolves around a homicide case.
I needn’t have worried. One of the reviews I read compared this to the Nancy Drew mystery series, and that’s about right in my opinion. I found the book very old fashioned in style and content, and extremely conservative in its depictions of crime.
Theodore is a thirteen year old boy whose passion is the law. His father is a real estate lawyer. His mother is a divorce lawyer, and Theodore spends most of his life hanging round his parents law practice or haunting the court of his home town, Strattenburg.
Theodore helps his Government class teacher, Mr. Mount to get the class seats at the most talked about trial in town, the trial of Pete Duffy, who stands accused of murdering his wife so that he could cash in a large life insurance policy he took out on her, so he could use the money to prop up his ailing business.
Theodore, along with most other people, believe that Mr Duffy is guilty, but the prosecution only have circumstantial evidence. It looks like Mr Duffy will get off, until a piece of evidence that could turn the case around, lands in Theodore’s lap.
It is at this point that you really think things will start to hot up in this novel. There is great potential here for building a wonderful air of tension, a bit of menace, some urgency and a general sense of excitement that this novel is really going places. Sadly this does not happen. The danger defuses like a damp squib, the characters show about as much concern and/or sense of fear/anticipation as if they were waiting for the next bus to show up, and the whole book just fizzles out.
If you want a child to learn how the American legal system works in terms of laws and by laws, this is great. If you want a child to learn about all the different sorts of lawyers and how a court building works day in day out, this is also great. If you want to patiently build a generation of young readers who might one day go on to read your more interesting novels, this might be the way forward.
If you’re looking for a roller coaster of tension, excitement and pages of narrative you want to keep turning because you just can’t wait to find out what happened, this is not for you.
On the other hand it is suitable for upper Key Stage 2 children, aged 8 to 11. It has no swearing, minor depictions of violence rendered so harmless you wonder whether anyone was actually murdered at all, and absolutely nothing to upset anyone, anywhere at any point. It is suitably boring for both boys and girls, and if you know anyone who is really interested in how the law works from a sort of glorified Highway Code perspective, this is definitely the book for them.
The saving grace of the World Book Night copy is that it has the first chapter of Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ in it as a trailer for ‘if you liked that, you’ll like this’.
I would say that To Kill A Mockingbird is everything Theodore Boone should be but isn’t. It is brilliant, powerful, page turning writing of the tensest most emotionally ensnaring kind. It is also unsuitable for primary school children, but should be mandatory reading for everyone over the age of twelve. It is a book the current government in the UK are trying to take off the high school curriculum because it is not English enough.
That should be recommendation enough. Ditch Theodore Boone and read To Kill a Mockingbird while you still can.