I can’t say how many times I’ve heard my students ask for a Margaret Peterson Haddix book, and how many time I’ve shelved or walked past Haddix’s Missing Series, blissfully unaware what was really in her books. It wasn’t until I was trying to find one of my fifth graders a new book to read that The Missing Series really came to my attention.
I began by asking her my usual question: what was the last book you read that you really liked? (This is interchangeable with: what is your favorite book?) She pointed me to the first book of the Missing Series, Found. I had always assumed that these books were suspense novels, maybe with a bit of horror thrown in, due to the artwork on the cover. I asked the student what Found was about, hoping she would tell me about the plot and the characters, and I could connect it with a similar book. Instead, she told me it was about time travel.
What now? I stared at her, flabbergasted, unable to believe that a series of time travel books had been sitting under my nose for the past two years. Furthermore, I had been struggling for the past couple of weeks to come up with a list of science books to suggest to students. Science fiction–my favorite genre, by the way–was far and few between for upper elementary fiction. How could I not have known about the Missing Series?
On principle now, I took it upon myself to read the series. Here are my thoughts.
The premise of the series is as follows: a couple of criminal time travelers steal 36 famous kids from history, who–as far as anyone knows–seemed to have gone missing anyway. But their work was sloppy, and it turns out that they stole each child too soon and messed up the time stream. Another time traveler, JB, shows up to try to fix time. At first he simply plans to send each child back to history to meet their demise, but the main character Jonah (also a missing kid from history) convinces JB to let them fix history AND return to their lives in the 21st century. Throughout the series, Jonah and his surrogate sister (not a missing child) Katherine do just that: go back in time to set history right.
One of the reasons this series is great is the integration done with history. As Jonah and Katherine live out the historical events in each novel, young readers will find themselves learning about history, perhaps unwittingly. But there is something deeper here as well. The children were stolen from history before they could meet their tragic deaths, so that hangs very heavy in each book.
And while Jonah and Katherine manage to rescue each child from the claws of death, they cannot save history itself. In the second book, Jonah and Katherine find themselves in the middle of a battle between the Richard III and the Tudors. Many soldiers die. In the third book, they arrive at Roanoke Island after either a massacre or a plague. In the fourth book, they face the ruthless captain Henry Hudson at the end of long and perilous journey. Many on the crew have died or are dying from the bitter cold. In the fifth book they face a scarlet fever epidemic, and in the sixth book they arrive just before the Romanov family is about to be executed.
This is not a glorified or fictional account of death. Indeed, the horror that accompanies these thrilling adventures lies in the fact that it was real, that it has happened already. Haddix simply shines a light on these accounts from a child’s eye. Often in history we focus so much on facts on numbers and fail to see the real horror of our own past.
But we also see how kids can grow and mature after exposure to such things. This is mixed in with the classes search for identity. As each child comes into contact with their own history, they find strength to do what is right and to understand the world around them. I’m most excited for the next book, because it is rumored that we will finally get to see who Jonah was in history and I can’t wait to see how it will change him.
There’s so much more I want to say about this series, but I will leave it here. Although history, identity, and death are all very serious themes in children’s literature, it should not be said that these books are dark or serious all the time. Told by a thirteen-year-old traveling through time with his sister, there is plenty to laugh at and enjoy. These books are written at a DRA level 50, so I would not suggest them for anyone under that level. But for an advanced 4th grade reader or a 5th grader, it will be a fun read that is meant to challenge.