I picked up Red Planet for Evalina for Christmas with much nostalgia on my mind. It was my first Heinlein. I remember when I was 9, and my father brought me into a used bookstore and presented it to me with triumph in his face, knowing that he was introducing me to something wonderful. I had the same thought as I began reading it to Evalina, and I have to say, I was not disappointed.
The Story: Jim Marlowe has grown up on Mars, in a human colony. The humans co-exist on Mars with the natives, and they are there under contract from The Company, which is working to further terraform Mars. Jim has made a "friend," not quite a pet, of a Martian creature the humans call Bouncers. His name is Willis, and he resembles a soccer ball, but with protrusions (eye stalks, etc) he can use if he desires. He is also a perfect mimic - much better than a parrot - and sometimes repeats what he hears at inappropriate times. Jim begs to take Willis with him when he goes off to the colony's boarding school, and though there are some objections, he is finally allowed to do so. On the journey to the school, Jim, Willis, and his friend take a small excursion into the Martian city near a human base during a lay-over, and they encounter the elusive native Martians, and amazingly, befriend them. They even take part in a sacred "Water Ceremony," which binds them to the Martians like blood brothers. Once at the school, they find that there is a new headmaster, who, unlike the benevolent previous headmaster, seeks to turn the school into something akin to a military school, and among other things, he has outlawed pets. Willis is deemed a pet and confiscated. Jim and his buddy risk themselves to free Willis from his prison in the nefarious headmaster's office, and Willis (though his mimicking-playback ways) alerts them to a scheme that will threaten the very fabric of colonial life on Mars. Jim, his buddy, and Willis take their lives into their hands to escape the school and return to their home, halfway across Mars, to try to let their families know about the threat, and attempt to stop it.
The Good: Jim is a strong character, and you get to know him right away. Evalina wants to get an "I Heart Willis" t-shirt printed and wear it all the time. Immediately, you fall for that little guy. He's like a tribble x 1000. The Martians are well-described (and are the very same Martians from Stranger in a Strange Land, a non-juvenille Heinlein, so that's cool) and mysterious as they are interesting. The Martian landscape is described well (though we know it now to be speculative fiction.. Heinlein had no way of knowing when he wrote this), and you really get the feel of what it might be like to live on Mars. The loyalty of Jim to his colony, and to Willis, is truly something to admire. The story is exciting and fun to read.
The Bad: I don't think it's bad necessarily, but foreign from our modern sensibilities. Boys on Mars are trained and licenced to use and carry guns. It is a huge deal when the new headmaster wants to ban guns. It makes sense in the Martian environment to have guns, if for no other reason than to protect yourself from the horrible water seekers, like crocodiles in their viciousness. Sometimes, there are tense moments in the book where it is unsure what is going to happen to Willis and the boys, but that's just good storytelling to me.
The Verdict: I liked this just as much reading it to Evalina as I liked it when I was her age. I can't wait to get some more Heinlein for us to enjoy together, and I can fully recommend this one to anyone interested in exploring some great science fiction.