Jack Zulu and the Waylander’s Key

 “The problem with baseball is that at first you’re desperate to leave home. Then, once you’re gone, you’ll do just about anything to get back. Even steal. But you can’t get back the way you came. You have to take another way home . . . It was only an after-school pickup game, sure, but to Jack it was another step on the long road to greater things – things far from Myrtle, West Virginia. Jack’s father, dead now for many years, had immigrated from South Africa, where the last name Zulu was as common as Robinson. His father had married a West Virginia girl after college and settled into her town of Myrtle. Jack’s background was complex, but his focus was singular. He was going somewhere. Somewhere else.”

When Jack Zulu and the Waylander’s Key opens, it is 1984 in West Virginia. A half-African, half-Appalachian kid named Jack Zulu from Myrtle, West Virginia was about as normal as any middle school-aged kid could be. Jack had a best friend, a girl he liked, a sport he loved, and a longing to go somewhere and do something. Oh, and he could not get enough pizza. Good thing for Jack that his best friend Benny was an Irish-Italian American whose family owned a pizza parlor. And, as I said, he was a normal middle school kid, so he made a fool of himself whenever he was near that girl, Michelle. 

What makes Jack different from many other middle schoolers is that his police chief father was killed in the line of duty, and his mother is dying of cancer. Jack might be normal, but his life isn’t very normal, and when this story opens, it is going to get a lot less normal in a hurry. 

“(Michelle) was beautiful, dark-skinned, and enchanting . . . their dads, the only two black officers in the county, had worked together for many years. The two families grew close and had spent a lot of time together, but they drifted apart when Jack’s dad died. Police Chief Ruben Zulu and Officer Steven Robinson had gone missing for weeks on a case. When Officer Robinson returned, he brought back a blood-covered police badge to an endless supply of unanswered questions. There had been an awkwardness between the two families ever since.”

Ruben Zulu’s death is shrouded in mystery. Neither the reader nor the characters in this book seem to know much about it, except for Officer Robinson, who is not talking, and the kindly old bookshop owner, Mr. Wheeler, with his strange accent and eccentric ways. 

In the years since Ruben’s death, Mr. Wheeler has become a mentor to Jack, keeping him well supplied with interesting books about faraway places and other worlds. When strange things begin to happen, Mr. Wheeler trusts Jack with something precious and gives him strange instructions about how to guard it. This, of course, is how the adventure begins. 

S. D. Smith says that he writes new books with old souls. But this time, he is joined by a new author with an old soul, his sixteen-year-old son, Josiah. Together, they take us on an adventure into the space between twelve worlds with peoples and politics just like ours and completely different at the same time. Jack, Benny, and Michelle do escape Myrtle, West Virginia, but they find that home isn’t such a bad place after all. 

While this is the first credited collaboration between Sam and Josiah, it is not the first time they have worked together. Josiah has been helping with his father’s story writing for years. This time, what is different is that this is a world that Josiah created, which he invited his father into. Developed initially as a screenplay for a TV series, the father and son pair worked together to retell this story as a novel. It is really fun to see their two voices blend in this story!

As I have said so many times, Sam has a big heart for our young people, and his stories do much to encourage them as they entertain. As always, Sam’s stories confront real issues and push back against real darkness. It is a joy to see how Josiah writes in the same way. This story of his creation is the right kind of hero story – the kind in which the heroes are drawn like real people with real problems and who are choosing to behave virtuously.

This series-starter tackles the issue of racism, and the evils of prejudice head-on by bringing our characters to another world where racism is just as evil and divisive there as it is here. It also asks important questions about identity – who we are, how people see us, and how we respond to how they see us. And, Jack faces incredible temptation. Honorable temptation. He has to make a choice between good and evil which is incredibly hard since the evil is parading itself as an important good.

I enjoyed this book and genuinely enjoyed reading it aloud to my kids. As a child of the ‘80s, I enjoyed going back to a time when I was twelve and felt a little like these characters did. In our interview with Sam and Josiah we talked about how this story highlights the best of the 1980s while steeping it in virtue. And I enjoyed sharing that time with those cultural references with my kids. I was sad, however, that no DeLorean made an appearance . . .  

Learn more about Jack Zulu and S.D. Smith at Biblioguides.