Many children know the feeling of not fitting in and in “The Midnighters,” author Hana Tooke explores that feeling through her main character, Ema, whose fantastic, incredibly dangerous journey in this novel finally leads to her finding acceptance and respect. Ema was born into a family of scientists, and while she absorbed much of their knowledge, she didn’t feel their passion. What she felt instead was dread, and that feeling made her feel different than the rest of her siblings and her parents. She seemed to know when bad things were going to happen, and the number twelve was an especially dangerous number in her eyes.
Perhaps this number held special meaning because she was born at midnight on the twelfth day of the twelfth month? Perhaps because her grandmother died at the exact moment that Ema was born, although Ema didn’t know this particular fact? Perhaps because she is the twelfth child born to famous scientists? Shadows also incite a special fear in Ema as they seem to writhe and flow in places they shouldn’t.
When her parents must leave on a trip and have no place for Ema to go, they send her to the home of an uncle she never knew existed. He lives in the small, ramshackle house in which Ema’s mother grew up, and he’s a bicycle maker with a huge Maine coon cat, Ferkel. It’s through Uncle Josef that Ema first comes to feel welcome although she is perplexed by his ability to foretell the weather without all the scientific equipment that her mother uses to do the same. He knows just when the weather will change and tells Ema not to bring her heavy coat as it’s going to be warm, or to take an umbrella because even though the sky is clear and sunny, it will rain shortly. How does he do that when it’s obvious that he’s not a scientist? Ema’s parents have ridiculed and dismissed her feelings and foretelling as not real. Only science is real. So how do you explain those unscientific things like predicting the weather and knowing when bad things will happen?
At her uncle’s house, Ema meets a most unusual girl, Sylvie. Sylvie seems to be everything Ema is not. She is fearless and adventurous. They become friends, and Sylvie pushes Ema to experience new things and to conquer her fear of heights, of midnight, of shadows. But then Sylvie disappears. That event marks Ema’s really coming into her own. She is convinced that Sylvie is in trouble and needs her help. She must overcome her fears and brave dark Prague at midnight to help Sylvie. Most of all, she must overcome her self-doubt. And that’s perhaps the most difficult fear to conquer.
The story takes place in 19th century Prague, and the setting itself is almost magical. The story leaves the reader wondering about mystical things: the ability to communicate with the dead, telling the future, portending doom. Is what Ema does magic or is there a rational explanation? I would love to use this book as a classroom read aloud to discuss that very topic. It’s a book that would be perfect for a fourth or fifth grade classroom, although older children would also enjoy it. Mostly, it demonstrates to readers that the feeling of not fitting in is more common than we think, and that thinking outside the box and using your strengths are important qualities. I also really enjoyed Tooke’s first novel, “The Unadoptables,” about a determined and clever group of orphans who outwit a very evil person in their determination to find a home of their own.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Viking Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.