Be it marble run or Mousetrap, what kid doesn’t love the Rube Goldberg–esque twists and turns of a moving puzzle? In veteran kidlit writer Kevin Sylvester’s newest offering, Apartment 713, the Regency, the apartment building at the heart of the book, operates as a kind of gigantic puzzle box or escape room packed with delightful secrets.
We first encounter the Regency in the present day, when young Jake and his struggling mother move into the now rundown building slated for demolition. Jake loathes the place on sight, even as he reluctantly finds himself helping out some of its oddball residents.
But when he finds himself thrust into the past (not long after the First World War has ended) and encounters the Regency in its Art Deco glory days, he can’t help but come to love it, encouraged in no small part by his new friend, Beth. As time goes on, he finds himself committed to saving the Regency, convinced that’s why he’s been “sent back.” This is where Sylvester’s set-building shines, as we see the Regency packed with secret levers, hidden rooms, keys without locks, and locks without keys, all of which function as breadcrumbs to lead Jake down a trail that he hopes will help him save the building in the future as well as send him home – although the prospect of leaving his new friend nearly a hundred years in the past has him feeling torn.
The building’s puzzles and contraptions are one of the book’s great charms, as are the era-appropriate celebrity cameos Sylvester peppers throughout. While some might not land for younger readers, the fun Sylvester has with interwar-era slang and drugstore-counter confections are universal pleasures (though parents may have trouble tracking down a contemporary malted for their eager readers).
Sylvester’s greatest triumph, though, is pulling off the tricky balance of combining some bittersweet and even tragic backstories (in particular the death of Beth’s father, which occurs before Jake’s arrival) with mystery and fun. It would be easy for Jake and Beth’s adventures to feel odd under the pall of her loss, or for the realism of what she’s going through to bog down any fun in the book. But Sylvester spins his plates well, managing to imbue both Beth’s emergence from grief through her friendship with Jake and Jake’s emotional growth with great significance while maintaining page-turning momentum.