Cleo Porter and the Body Electric

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  • 5 min read

By Jake Burt

Book Source: ARC provided for review
Book Status: Available October 6, 2020

I was thrilled to receive an advanced copy of this new book by Jake Burt. I read it in one day because I just couldn’t put it down. I realized I would reveal too much if I did a usual review so instead I asked Jake some questions.

1.  Books are written years before they come out. How did you come up with the Cleo Porter idea? Are you psychic? You’re absolutely right that books take years to polish before they hit shelves; I wrote the first draft of CLEO in the summer of 2018. As far as any psychic proficiency, I can claim exactly zero. The initial inspiration came from a report that several companies were considering using drones to deliver orders. My first thought was, “That’ll never work…the insurance liability alone for having drones dropping things on people’s cars, on people…would be prohibitive!” But my second thought was, “Okay, so what if it did work…and what if it worked so well that people never needed to go out again?” From there, I thought of another time in my life when I couldn’t go out: 2003. At the time, I lived in Jinan, China. It’s the year SARS hit, and kind of like now, we were under quarantine. Travel plans cancelled, people wearing masks, rumors and political barbs flying, and we were at the epicenter of it. That’s the experience upon which I built Cleo’s world, and even though it’s set eighty years after the pandemic in their world, the parallels between what’s happening now and the echoes of it in the book are, I’ll admit, uncanny. I’m hopeful that the novel will give kids, parents, teachers, and librarians a way to think about current events…in my experience, the best sci-fi often does.

2.  As COVID-19 got worse, what did you think knowing what your book is about? I was glad I did my research! Much of the preparation I needed to do before writing the novel went into studying anatomy (so I could be half as smart as Cleo is about it…), and still more on how governments might respond to a pandemic. The fictional disease in CLEO PORTER worked differently than COVID, but a lot of society’s responses have been the same. Social distancing, closing borders, people needing to make huge decisions and ask big, sometimes unanswerable questions – all of those themes have resonated as we’ve mobilized our country to confront our real-world threat. I wonder if it will make Cleo’s world seem more real and more true to readers.    

3.  Did you consider not having it publish in the fall? No. Perhaps if the book was about the pandemic itself (with depictions of disease and death that readers might find unsettling or traumatic), then we would have talked about reworking or delaying the novel. But ultimately, Cleo’s world is one shaped by the ghosts of the pandemic, rather than by any current affliction. I actually think readers might find solidarity or comfort in the form Cleo’s world takes…in some ways, it will be more familiar to readers than it will be to Cleo herself!

4.  Since kids will have experienced social distancing, how do you think kids will respond to Cleo Porter differently than you originally expected?  I believe the setting of the novel will have more impact; kids will be able to make more text-to-self connections as they read. They’ll also be able to approach the novel with a better understanding of some of the science behind it…which, in turn, will allow them to get into Cleo’s head a little bit more. Finally, our current emphasis on celebrating caregivers, doctors, nurses, and scientists will paint Cleo herself in a clearer light. Her driving motivation is compassion, and that’s something I think we should all be embracing right now.  

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Jake also asked me some questions. I can’t share many because spoilers… But I can share these…

What did you think of the drones?

They were cool, though I don’t think that their tech  would be available when the buildings were made, but its the future, so they may have released new tech. I have a lot of questions about how the world works.

How did our current health situation impact your reading of the book? I don’t know if it did impact my reading. I don’t think it did because the book is well after the pandemic and we are still in the pandemic. Maybe it is what could happen if we don’t follow the experts.

You’re an avid reader, with so much excellent experience. Are there any books you’ve read that you’d compare CLEO to? 
It stands on its own. I don’t think there is anything like it. Kids who liked Enginerds might like to see how technology works right.   But Cleo Porter is her own kind of hero. Maybe there will be characters like her in the future but she is the first.

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