Jack Zulu finds adventure where he least expects it in this new middle grades fantasy series opener from S. D. Smith.
Jack Zulu and the Waylander’s Key by S.D. Smith and J.C. Smith. StoryWarren, 2022. 292 pages.
Reading Level: Middle grades, ages 10-12
Recommended For: Ages 10 and up.
Who is Jack Zulu?
Jack Zulu is an ordinary kid in an ordinary town. Except that he’s not. And his town is not. Jack loves baseball, pizza, and hanging out with his best friend Benny. He’s got a crush on Michelle. But Jack’s mom is desperately sick in the hospital, his dad died years ago, and his mentor Mr. Wheeler suddenly appears to be more than he seems. And Jack’s small West Virginia hometown contains a portal to the Wayland, the land between worlds. And humans aren’t the only creatures who can travel between worlds.
“Is it all real, sir?”
“Everything you read in my books?”
Mr. Wheeler’s eyes were bright, and his gold-rimmed glasses reflected the lantern at the bar and the distant candle. “Yes, Jack. The stories are too good to not be true, the legends are as real as reality, and the tales are far more faithful than fables.”~Jack Zulu, p. 64
In today’s fantasy books landscape, “spunky girl protagonists” feature prominently. Hooray for a new fantasy book featuring a strong, young boy as the main character! Jack is a likable, relatable character who struggles both with circumstances (such as his mother’s health) and with character issues (should he give into temptation from the evil one?). Like all the best fantasy heroes, Jack can’t go it alone, but desperately needs Benny’s friendship (even though he doesn’t always realize it) and Mr. Wheeler’s wise guidance. Indeed, Jack’s entire community rallies to care for his mother and him in various ways. Jack’s faith is present but in the background; Benny is Catholic, and Jack is (presumably) Protestant. Characters offer to pray for one another and/or mention church, but the book is not preachy. Rather, the characters’ religious beliefs are simply part of who they are. The battles are laced with spiritual overtones, but they aren’t as transparent as a series like The Prince Warriors.
The Jack Zulu Team
All in all, Jack Zulu is a delightful read and we’re looking for future books in the series! It will make a terrific follow-up for those who read the Green Ember books at a younger age and want to grow up a bit with this series. This is also a debut novel by Sam Smith’s son, Josiah. The two co-wrote the book. If you have an aspiring young author at home, definitely scoop up a copy of this title for inspiration. (You may also be interested in Sam’s writing course for young writers.)
As with his popular Green Ember books, Sam Smith is independently publishing this title. The best way to procure it right now is to pre-order it on his website (pre-orders open October 4th).
- Race: Jack is half (black) South African, half (white) West Virginian. This adds a nice bit of nuance to this book without making race the point of the book.
- Violence: Minimal, but Jack, Benny, Mr. Wheeler, and Michelle are involved in a war. Bad guys don’t play nice.
- Supernatural elements: there are curses, spirits, and other supernatural elements in the Wayland; this is a fantasy series after all. But it’s magic along the lines of the great classic fantasy writers.
Overall Rating: 4.75 out of 5
- Worldview/Moral Rating: 5 out of 5
- Literary/Artistic Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Related Reading From Redeemed Reader
Stay Up to Date!
Get the information you need to make wise choices about books for your children and teens.
Support our writers and help keep Redeemed Reader ad-free by joining the Redeemed Reader Fellowship.