Explorer Academy: The Nebula Secret
illustrated by Scott Plumbe (with a blend of photos)
National Geographic Partners, 2018
Done with the Harry Potter series, maybe not quite ready for the Alex Rider series, what do you suggest?
Explorer Academy. Emphatically.
The book opens in Hawaii, where Cruz Coronado (not quite 13) is getting packed and saying goodbye before he heads to Washington, D.C., to attend Explorer Academy. His mother worked there. His aunt Marisol is a professor of anthropology, paleontology, and cryptology. Cruz desperately wants to go. Out for a last surf before his dad drives him to the airport, someone grabs his ankle and tries to drag him down. Cruz senses danger and manages to escape.
That’s just the first few pages. Arriving at the Academy, we are treated to satisfying descriptions of Cruz’s fellow students, his teachers, the fantastic buildings of the Academy, and the library with its special collections room. Cruz meets his roommate, Emmett Lu, who is inventive and great best friend material.
The students are vying for the North Star award, given to the most promising student at the end of their first year. That sets up some tension but it’s the simulated environment exploring they do, much of it to aid in conservation efforts, that proves to be risky and turn-the-page engrossing.
There are several layers of story here. Cruz’s mother died at the Academy several years earlier but no one knows why. She left clues in code for Cruz because she’s confident he’ll figure out what’s going on. Someone always seems to be following Cruz and there are several characters who pop up along the way who are unsettling. All of this and his class assignments are difficult but fascinating. Who wouldn’t want to go to this school?
The characters will become the reader’s friends: Sailor, Bryndis, and Emmett will become close friends, a team, and Dugan, Zane, Renshaw, and Ali round out their explorer group. Back in Hawaii, Cruz’ best friend Lani helps him think things through, do internet research, and whips up life-saving measures because she senses he needs them. There’s even a dog!
Each of the chapters is chock full of cool gadgets, cutting-edge science, astronomy, anthropology, every bit of which had me looking things up on the computer. At the end of the book, there’s a thoughtful section of real-life scientists pursuing the research and inventions described in the book, letting us know what’s real and what’s nearly real.
As always, this National Geographic book is so well designed that it becomes another element of the story, pulling us through. (At one point, I flipped through to see what other cool illustrations there might be.) Scott Plumbe combines good character studies with cool maps and examples, some of which are blended with photos. Altogether the look and feel of the book support this fast-paced, well-written thriller of a story.
I can’t wait for book two, The Falcon’s Feather, because Cruz’s mother challenges him to a quest that will take him and the explorers all around the world and this reader wants to be by his side.