Stewart Foster’s new against-the-odds story is an emotionally affecting tale of a complicated young boy and his kooky old grandfather, who find common ground on the chess board.
Like Foster’s previous successes (The Bubble Boy; All the Things That Could Go Wrong), the main character in this story presents with a condition that makes his life difficult. Felix struggles to concentrate at school due to his ADHD and, as a result, often gets into trouble. His grandmother helped him a lot but, since she died, it’s pretty much impossible for him to succeed – so why bother? Much easier to lose himself in imaginary game in his tree house with his friend, Jake.
Felix’s grandfather, though, is not going to let him take things easy. Growing up in wartime Germany, Grandad keeps some very intriguing secrets, including how to master the game of chess. This does not interest Felix in any way, but Grandad is crafty and, through various bizarre tactics, Felix is somehow cajoled into learning the game. In fact, he learns it very well indeed.
As he gets to grips with the intricacies of the ancient game, Felix unlocks potential he didn’t know he had. It’s not cool to like chess, though, and the book illustrates brilliantly the challenge for school children to succeed with something while simultaneously pretending they’re too cool to care about it. Yet care about it Felix does, and readers will care about it, too. There is absolutely no need to like (or know anything at all about) chess in order to sympathise with Felix’s journey from novice to championship contender.
What is most impressive, and enjoyable, about the book, is how this underdog story is balanced beautifully by other twisting and turning plot-lines. Grandad’s health is in doubt, but so is his past, especially when Jake and Felix find a few clues as to his role in the war.
Though the narrative is straightforward on the surface, there is great depth to this story. It is about family and friendship and the importance of believing in oneself. It is also a poignant reminder of the shared joy that can be found when children are willing to indulge their grandparents with a game or even just a conversation. Like the game of chess itself, Foster’s new novel is simultaneously simple and complex. It is very funny and emotional and it deserves to be another smash hit.