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Book Review: Kepler's Dream by Juliet Bell

We’re half-way through summer, but there’s still time for the young reader in your life to pick up a good book. 

Arizona Public Radio’s Ann Cummins recommends Kepler’s Dream, by Juliet Bell.

It’s about a girl from Seattle who spends a hot, lonely summer in New Mexico…until she discovers a mystery.

There’s an old adobe house in Albuquerque, not too far from Old Town.

Locals call it the peacock house. 

In real life, it was once owned by an eccentric woman who kept a hundred peacocks. 

She also had a little lapdog and a library full of rare and beautiful books.

The woman, the peacocks, and the little dog are long gone. 

Now, the Albuquerque Museum Foundation keeps the house. 

The people who work there say they’ve seen the ghost of the little dog dodging around corners, and they have heard the inelegant scratching of peacocks on the adobe roof.

This summer, author Juliet Bell gave new life to the old house in Kepler’s Dream.

It’sa wonderful mystery about stolen books, family secrets, and one brave eleven-year old, Ella Mackenzie. 

Ella’s forced to make the best of a rotten summer.

While her mother undergoes cancer treatment back in Seattle, Ella’s been sent to live in a strange town with a grandmother she’s never met. 

The grandmother, Violet Von Stern, lives up to her name. 

She’s a formidable woman, alien to the world of eleven-year olds, a throw-back to another century. 

In Von Stern’s world, children don’t say ugly words like “um”; they don’t say yeah—yes is polite. 

They dress for dinner; dinner is always poached and flavorless, the vegetables, chopped into slaws. 

In Von Stern’s adobe castle, there’s no TV, no Internet, and mostly no comfort for a young girl worrying about her mother battling cancer.

But Ella is a child with a wealth of inner resources. 

She’s great at finding humor in a humorless house; and, she finds one little island of common ground with her grandmother,

They both love to read. 

When Von Stern’s most valued book—Kepler’s Dream, Astronomy on the Moon— goes missing Ella follows a crooked trail to solve the mystery. 

She hides among the peacocks on the roof, spying; she snoops and discovers villainy among her grandmother’s house guests, but also deep and baffling secrets within her own family.

You might wonder if a bookworm can hold her own among the dragons and wizards that fill the pages of young adult literature these days.

But author Juliet Bell practices an old magic. 

Her young protagonist, Ella, is good company, plain and simple:  a fully alive character bravely facing real-world problems. 

Inspired by the famous 17th century moon-mapper, Johannes Kepler, Ella becomes a different sort of navigator. 

She charts a course through loneliness and uncertainty. 

With just the right mixture of adventure and mystery, and set in a beautifully plumed New Mexico hacienda, Kepler’s Dream will captivate young readers.

And it may very well inspire the serious young writer.

Ann Cummins is Professor of Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University. She has published stories in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Antioch Review, and elsewhere; her fiction has been anthologized in a variety of series including The Best American Short Stories, The Prentice Hall Anthology of Women’s Literature, and The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. A 2002 recipient of a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship, she is the author of the short story collection Red Ant House, (Houghton Mifflin, spring, 2003) and the novel Yellowcake (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).