In Review: Clem Hetherington and the Ironwood Race

As soon as I was done, I wanted to read more.

Clem Hetherington and the Ironwood Race by Jen Breach & Douglas Holgate

Published by Scholastic on February 27, 2018. Jacket hardcover of 208 pages at $24.99, softcover at $14.99, and EBook at $9.99. Intended for ages 8 – 12, grades 3 – 7. 

Note: I read an advanced copy so anything may have changed by publication.

The cover: Clem and Digory are in their racer speeding to another archaeological site to uncover another lost artifact on this cover by Douglas Holgate, which was designed by Phil Falco. The title at the top insinuates speed in the word Clem before the image is seen, which is neat. The illustration displays a lot of speed, which is necessary in a book that features racing, and the colors are really bold, which I would expect for a race themed tale. I really like the smile on Clem’s face, while Digory the robot looks worried. Having read the book, I can say that this is the absolute the right cover for this book. Overall grade: A

The premise: From the back cover, “Clementine Hetherington and her robot, Digory, have run away from an orphanage. Ever since their famous archaeologist parents mysteriously died, they’ve been trying to make their way into the industry, but no one will take them seriously. Their chance arrives when a man from their past saves Digory’s life, and to repay the debt they enter a multiday rally race…to recover stolen artifacts! Clem and Dig hope to win so they can give them to a museum, but their opponents want to sell them on the black market. The Ironwood Race has no rules, and Clem and Dig might be in over their heads!” I’m not a fan of racing in general, but pairing it with archaeology is a definite draw. Including robots and the artifacts that are stolen has me wanting to start reading as soon as possible. Overall grade: A

The characters: Clem Hetherington is an older teen who’s essentially living on the streets with her robot Digory. She wants to be involved in archaeology, but no university will take her because of her age. This only motivates her more to become an archaeologist like her deceased parents. She’ll do anything to be involved with a dig. Clem was a great protagonist for her drive, her desire to succeed, her loyalty to Digory, and her conscience. Something is revealed at the end of the book that has her questioning what she’s done in this book and what she wants to do in her future. It puts her in a quandary that most young adult books don’t acknowledge. This was an impressive character turn from author Jen Breach. Digory is her faithful robot who assists her with everything. His devotion to her is so strong that he becomes a living being to the reader and not just a metallic sidekick. He encounters several obstacles in the book, too. He is an outstanding character on his own, but paired with his “sister” they’re unstoppable. The mysterious Kilburn is the first major supporting character in the book and the one that directs the protagonists towards the race. He is an archaeologist, having worked with the Hetheringtons before they died. He wants the artifacts that are the prizes in the race and he knows that Clem has a better chance of finding them than he has. He, too, has a major turn at the book’s ending and it was terrific. The two teams of archaeologists/racers that Clem and Dig have to deal with are Team Dray and Team Crocodillo. The latter team gives the book a Wacky Racers feel, as they are humanoid crocs in three different sizes who drive a vehicle that has some surprising accessories. They look as if they’d eat Clem if they couldn’t knock her car aside. Team Dray are all humans and are the tech experts. They don’t mess around and have the gear to get what they want more smoothly than Team Crocodillo. Their driver has a few scenes with Clem and has the protagonist and the reader constantly changing how to consider her. I liked that. Overall grade: A

The settings: The book begins in civilization, at a university, on the streets, in a lab, and then moves to desert wilds where the race occurs. The university is portrayed in the classical, drowning in books and papers, environment. This was familiar and safe territory. On the streets, there are a wide array of characters inhabiting the urban area and where Clem and Dig live is sad and a bit creepy, given that anyone can appear to cause them trouble. Kilburn’s lab is exactly the high tech environment the reader has expected. The environment where the race occurs is very similar to any Mad Max film: plenty of dirt and rocks. This allows for some thrilling chases and plays into the Raiders of the Lost environment for digging. Overall grade: A-

The action: As I stated, I’m not thrilled by racing, real or fictional. I’m not a fan of any of the Mad Max films, though have seen them all. I was thinking that this element of the book would be low for me, but it’s not. I really enjoyed the races. I found them entertaining and thrilling. I didn’t know if the heroes would win their race or find the buried artifacts. I liked the psychological aspects of the race, with Clem trying to out think her competitors in the race and at the dig sites. The action in this book was very well done. Overall grade: A

The conclusion: This is my only nit with the book: it ended. I was so enjoying this tale, I didn’t want it to end. I was enthralled with the characters, the action, and the clever twists in the plot. The Ironwood Race does indeed end, with Clem achieving something, but perhaps not in the way she imagined. The final four pages of the book are wonderful. They give the book a solid conclusion, but leave the door open for possible other adventures. I, for one, want to see more of Clem and Dig. Overall grade: A

The art: The racing aspect of the book had me very worried about reading this. I didn’t think I would enjoy looking at illustrations of any type of racing, so I thought I would have to endure them to get through this book. I was so wrong. Douglas Holgate’s illustrations are superb. I loved the racing sequences, which were thrilling and easy to follow. The damage vehicles suffer are amazing to look at. The character work from Holgate is also superior. I love the design of Clem, Dig, and, most of all, Team Crocodillo. This group of reptiles looks amazing. I would read a book that just features them to see more of them. Returning to the lead, Clem is thin for her age, giving her an initially frail feel, but as the book progresses she comes across as strong. I really like these visuals and I would love to see more of Holgate’s work. Overall grade: A+

The final line: Racing, archaeology, robots, and giant crocodiles are only a few of the elements of this book that have young Clem Hetherington grow into the person she wants to be. A thrilling, charming, and wonderful read for all ages. As soon as I was done, I wanted to read more. To not continue Clem’s adventures would be a shame. Overall grade: A

To order a print copy go to

Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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