The divide between literature for older children and literature for adults has gotten much smaller than it once was, in the past decade; and the gap between books intended for adults and those intended for teens is smaller still. In the sci-fi/fantasy genre it is perhaps at it’s smallest; with adults devouring the latest Harry Potter,/Twilight/Hunger Games books along with their kids. The Photo Traveler by Arthur J. Gonzalez is a novel that is classified in the YA (young adult) or teen genre. Why? It has a teenage protagonist, certainly (and one who actually acts like a teenager as opposed to many of his counterparts in other books who act 17 going on 45). But if the character were to be written ten years older, the only really notable change would be that he would (hopefully) be a bit more mature and less impulsive. All of the other circumstances could be altered slightly to fit an older hero. What I am getting at here, is that The Photo Traveler is a novel written for teens and about a teen, but it’s one that could just as easily be enjoyed by adults.
Our protagonist, Gavin Hillstone, initially finds himself in a situation that no child should have to face. His parents were killed in a house fire when he was just out of diapers and he has no real memory of them. He was legally adopted by his foster mother, a kind woman, whose murder he witnessed in a convenience story robbery gone wrong. Living with her drunken, abusive husband, Gavin’s only escape from the ugliness in his life is photography. However, one day, Gavin learns that his paternal grandparents are still alive and across the country in Washington DC. If he had living relatives when his parents died, why was he in the foster system? Why would his grandparents willingly put him up for adoption? In search of answers Gavin runs away to DC, where he meets Bud and Estelle, the family he never knew he had. Bud and Estelle claim that that gave Gavin up so that he would be safe until he was old enough to learn the truth about himself and his family. His family is the descendants of a group of explorers who found something enabling them to travel through time and space via images. If a picture is of a real person or place, Gavin can go there by uttering a simple chant. At first he uses this ability the way a teenage boy would use it: recklessly. But he soon learns that others are after the power that the Photo Travelers possess and more besides. As a holder of that power Gavin has tremendous responsibility to use it wisely.
YA novels with boys as narrators are rare, and when they are written (often by women) the boy is sort of a fantasy version of a male teenager. The Photo Traveler’s greatest strength is that Gavin feels like a 17-18 year old male. In other words, there are times when he can be intelligent, charming and endearing, and there are times when you want to throttle him! For example, he shows kindness and generosity during the Great Depression, but when he sees a photo of his friend’s beautiful cousin who died years earlier, he naturally decides to steal some pictures of her so that he can go back in time and start a relationship with her. Surely nothing could go wrong with that plan, right?
Of course things do go wrong, there and elsewhere. Gavin is warned that with time travel he has to be careful of “the butterfly effect”. He can’t influence past events. But he’s not aware of the secrets that exist within his own family. It is these secrets that make his trips to the past more dangerous than he realizes, and make him wonder who, if anyone, he can trust.
If you’re a fan of any genre, there are times when you know where the book is going more or less. That’s true here as well. But there are times that the author throws you curve that leaves your head spinning. For me that happened about ¾ of the way through the book and again in it’s last few pages. I had been enjoying my journey with Gavin until that point, reading the book at a fairly quick pace. However, then something happened. There was a very definite point at which I stopped being able to put it down until I’d finished. Even finishing the book didn’t leave me satisfied, because as I turned the page following a giant cliffhanger I learned that I could keep an eye out for the sequel. Well, now I’ll have to. I’m hooked! Like Gavin, once the reader gets started on a journey he/she will need to see it through to the end.
Fran Laniado hails from New York, NY and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arthur Gonzalez’ Photo Traveler may be purchased here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Photo-Traveler-Series-Volume/dp/0988891646