The Lion of Mars – Jennifer L. Holm

 The Lion of Mars – Jennifer L. Holm. Random House, 2021. 9780593121818

 Format: Hardcover

Rating:  1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5

 Genre: science fiction

 What did you like about the book? 70 years from now, Mars has human settlements from 5 Earth countries.  The American settlement is populated by adult scientists and researchers who have previous experience in Antarctica, somewhere called New California, and on a lunar colony.  There are also 5 children who had been orphaned on Earth and sent to Mars as infants, and now range in age from 12 to 19.  The youngest, Bell, is the narrator of this incredible book that emphasizes the need for community and cooperation while providing  fascinating speculation about future technology.

Bell’s story describes in great detail the day-to-day routines of the underground colony – the chores (a LOT of dust duty), the meals (mostly algae-based), and the sibling rivalries and bonds that have developed among the children as well as their attachments to the various adults; we also learn, gradually, how the children are brought to Mars and how supplies are received from Earth.  One day when Bell sees something in the sky crash to the surface, he is convinced that an alien ship has crash-landed on Mars and the older kids decide to head out in a rover to investigate.  They are not supposed to use the rovers without permission, and they are definitely not supposed to go anywhere near any of the other countries’ settlements, due to an incident that none of them remember that resulted in the death of one of the adults several years ago.  Their expedition ends disastrously, but not before they see some of the French settlement and begin to express their curiosity about the others.  When a mysterious virus infects all of the adults in the American settlement, the kids realize they have to reach out to the other countries for help, despite having been expressly forbidden to do so. What follows is a delightful denouement full of heart and hope.

Jennifer L. Holm brings her gifts for developing believable characters and relationships, realistic dialogue and elaborately detailed settings to this delightful science fiction novel.  It really reads like a realistic fiction book that just happens to be set on Mars.  Readers will instantly take to Bell, and have empathy for him in every situation, from trivial things like bickering with his ‘brother’ Trey or snuggling with Leo, the colony’s cat, to momentous events such as his grief over the loss of his favorite adult or summoning the courage to venture to the other – presumed hostile – countries’ settlements.  Very informative author’s notes from Holm explain her interest in Mars and acknowledge the coincidence of the book having a deadly virus as a major plot point being published during the coronavirus pandemic.  With the recent interest in Mars exploration, there will be a large audience for this book!

 To whom would you recommend this book? There is not a lot of science fiction written for the middle grade level, and this one will be a big hit with 4th-6th grade readers (no matter their typical genre preferences) because of its interesting premise.  It would also be an outstanding whole-class read aloud at those grade levels, a nice tie-in to an astronomy unit.  

Who should buy this book? Public,  elementary and middle school libraries

Where would you shelve it?  Fiction

 Should we (librarians) put this on the top of our “to read” piles?  No, but it is definitely worth it if you have time!  

 Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City:  Leigh Russell King, Lincoln Street School, Northborough, Massachusetts.

Date of review: 3/29/2021

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