A titanic tale for children

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“Dangerous Waters: An Adventure on the Titanic” by Gregory Mone. Roaring Book Press, New York, March 10. Softcover, 216 pp., $15.99.

Greg Mone has delivered a riveting story of life and death at the turn of the 20th century aboard the Titanic, one of the last symbols of the oversized Gilded Age.

It’s an adventure thriller that covers the mores and customs of an often graceful era that catered to the super-rich, and it also takes us behind the scenes to show the grittier side of life serving the nobility of that time.

Mr. Mone combines the sinking of the Titanic story with a mystery-adventure plot to steal a rare medieval book in which the formula to alchemy (a long-held theory that gold can be made from base metals) is secreted.

The biggest secret for me came after I finished reading it and discovered the book was written for young people. “Dangerous Waters” is real literature. The tale unfolds primarily through the eyes of 12-year-old Patrick Waters, an underaged Belfast urchin who manages to get a junior steward gig aboard the mightiest vessel ever built. Young Patrick’s job, from dawn ’til exhaustion, is to care for gentlemen’s spittoons on the first-class deck.

There he meets Harry Elkins Widener (yes, the Harvard College library Widener) whose 16th-century copy of Sir Francis Bacon’s essays contains the alchemical in the view of two intellectual rare book thieves. Alexander Rockwell, the tubby felonious mastermind and John Berryman, his accomplice,conjure images of Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Dickens’s Uriah Heep, with really bad attitudes.

I learned more about the Titanic and its era in this book than from the ludicrous though insanely popular 1997 movie. Mr. Mone has carefully recreated the culture of the period, including speech and dress. He researched the letters of Mr. Widener, a Harvard graduate and rare book collector in whose memory Harvard’s great library is named.

Mr. Mone is good at that sort of thing, given his primary living is derived from writing for magazines such as Discover and other popular science publications. Mr. Mone does this work because he’s seen that kids will read, even gobble up, literate books. He will be on the Island April 10 to discuss “Dangerous Waters” with students at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School.

In a phone interview this week from his South Shore Massachusetts home, where he lives with his wife, Nika, and three kids, Mr. Mone laughed when he learned I hadn’t realized he was writing for a young audience. “You know, my Dad said he loves this book more than anything I’ve written,” he said.

This reviewer outgrew kid’s books about the time Titanic went down and the change to reality-based fiction for young people is an unexpected pleasure. I mean, Jim Kjelgaard had nasty people in his sagas but mostly they were about very nice dogs. The Hardy Boys’ parents were never bitter, hadn’t failed at life, nor drank too much.

“I think a good young person’s book can be layered and textured,” Mr. Mone said. “The story is told from three different character perspectives. I’m having fun with it, delivering a gripping, entertaining story but writing so kids get exposed to good writing early, as opposed to adventure novels full of clich├ęs. I like to surprise them with a big word now and then, shifting narrative perspective so kids can see the world through different sets of eyes.

“I think it would shock a 12 or 13 year old today to see what was expected from them in those days. Patrick’s schedule was not unusual for the times.”

This is Mr. Mone’s second book for middle-school readers. His first was “Fish,” chronicling the adventures of a 12-year-old boy aboard a pirate ship who loves to swim and hates to fight, an obvious career-killer if you happen to find yourself living with pirates. The critics loved it and gave “Fish” several snappy literary awards.

Mr. Mone has also written some whimsical books about the scientific tricks Santa Claus employs to span the globe in a single night, and “The Wages of Genius,” a present-day office comedy about a slacker with great aspirations. “No, it’s not a kid’s book,” he said.

Mr. Mone said he wrote a good deal of “Dangerous Waters” on the Vineyard in the West Tisbury studio of the artist Nick Thayer, his father-in-law.

“I have not found that it to be true that kids only watch movies and play iPhone games,” Mr. Mone said. “My experience is that kids do get engrossed in books. Only once in 50 to 75 talks in schools it was it difficult to keep kids’ attention.

“There’s nothing like watching dead words on a page coming to life. I tell them it’s like making a movie in your brain. I think kids will keep reading books. I just love writing these stories, bringing characters to life, writing good sentences while telling a good story.”