Countdown to Danger: Bullet Train Disaster by Jack Heath

A review by Nalini Haynes

Last Tuesday I attended the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Celebrate Story Creators event, where I listened to an entertaining lineup of children’s authors, of whom Jack Heath was one. Imagine my surprise and delight when I realised one of Jack’s books, Bullet Train Disaster, was sitting in my TBR (To Be Read) pile!

Jack enjoys his book tours where he meets lots of engaged readers. However, it’s reaching the disengaged or disinterested children that he finds particularly rewarding so he writes novels for reluctant readers. Jack’s action-packed stories are short and, in this novel, readers choose their own adventure.

When I was in primary school ‘pick a path’ books were new and, in my opinion, boring. The difficulty was that the stories were short — unsatisfying — and choices were limited. I read a couple then returned to my usual fare. (I may also have failed my quest the first couple of times and, perhaps, I threw the book down in disgust. Maybe.)

However, I would have enjoyed Jack’s books even though the stories are short. He takes a simple premise — the maiden journey of a bullet train climbing a steep mountainside — and adds a few twists like a boy falling, possibly to his death. Because there has to be a bullet train disaster. 🙂

Do you reach to help the falling boy?

Do you release your seatbelt?

Every choice has consequences.

Chapters are very short to allow readers to make choices then flip through to find the next point on the path. The chapters begin in fairly obvious sequences: are you a boy or a girl?

Did I mention you can be EITHER gender? And your best friend is a girl. Yay!

Then, as either character makes more choices, the reader is sent through the book in increasingly random sequences so it’s not possible to cheat easily and follow the story at the same time. I tried.

One of the sequence endings is in a chapter fairly early on, to which you must return from later in the book.

There are 11 possible safe endings; at the end of every safe ending, the reader is encouraged to return to the story to find all the other safe endings. Disastrous endings instruct the reader to return to a particular page to find a different path out of the story. With such a roller-coaster ride in a simple, easily accessible story, many children will follow multiple paths.

Jack says his stories are intended to take no more than half an hour for a reluctant reader although he acknowledges that children read at different paces. Bullet Train Disaster blends action-packed storytelling — reading — with the interactivity of a computer game to engage reluctant readers with the written word. I highly recommend Countdown to Danger: Bullet Train Disaster for both boys and girls.

Rating: highly recommended, inclusive of boys and girls
ISBN: 9781760159627
Format: paperback, 139 pages
Publisher: SCHOLASTIC AUSTRALIA
Bullet Train Disaster: the cover has a bullet train and a helicopter with a person dangling below