Calico Kids by Todd Downing

Calico Kids by Todd Downing Cover Art

If I hadn’t seen Stranger Things, I might have had a harder time understanding the mood of this book. That said, the story shares little crossover with the focus of the television show, which leans more on the horror edge than the adventure one. I wondered whether I would enjoy Calico, especially with the classification of horror, but this doesn’t read as horrific. Specific events could have qualified based on handling, but I don’t think they did. Your tolerance may vary.

Calico is a young teen paranormal adventure with bikes, hormones, school bullies, strange happenings, and more I can’t reveal. There are humorous moments that depend on the gross-is-good of young teens and others where they turn toys into tools for saving the world. The confusion with how to shelve the book comes because these aren’t modern young teens. This novel is as much nostalgia fiction as teen adventure, with a focus on the music, movies, and activities of the 80s. Few modern teens will get the references or connect with their greater meanings, but should still enjoy the story itself. The author also created a playlist on Spotify, offering a meta element and the chance to discover some cool music.

The novel begins with an extensive forward and acknowledgments that are not crucial to the story but give a taste of the period. They might have been better at the end, but I wouldn’t say to skip them. After all, that’s where I learned about the playlist. The actual story also spends the first chapter or so setting the scene. It brings Calico and the town’s inhabitants to life, both those in the past and book’s present day.

What caught me was the group of different teens who accept each other and hang together even when from the outside it might seem implausible. They investigate using all tools at hand, whether sheer curiosity, relatives from the Old Country, or a series of Time-Life books. Besides, how could I not like teens who devoured pirozhki’s with delight?

The original group is A.J., Liam, and Kris, all boys, but when Molly catches Liam’s eye, she soon becomes a full member rather than a hormonal distraction. I liked how that came about because she doesn’t blend in any more than the others do. She has her own opinions and sometimes dangerous curiosity connecting her to each member of the group. Their bonds are like a spider web. Different strands hold each pair, but the strands build into something solid and strong enough to allow others to join in the chaos as the story develops.

The writing had some awkward moments, and the narrator skips from being the various characters to an over-the-shoulder camera. I lost track of who was acting and/or speaking a couple of times, but for the most part, the technical aspects didn’t pull me out of the story. Even better, the flexible narrator made foresight possible that worked well with the ominous, ghost-town feel of the paranormal elements.

The book contains three episodes, each of which builds on the others but otherwise is mostly self-contained. The answers to the earlier ones are bandages on top of huge tears. At times, I found the gang too quick to accept incomplete answers in favor of not getting into any more trouble with their parents or the town sheriff. The quiet times between supernatural events didn’t last long enough to get annoying, though, thanks to a skillful use of summary. The ultimate solution offered a satisfying conclusion, so I forgive them wanting to enjoy what normalcy they could find.

While some connections require an understanding of the 80s, others play on our modern knowledge as it reflects on the past or on things most gamers will get. The novel provides an entertaining balance of plot and people moments, and I’m glad I took the chance. I’ll be reading more from this author.

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