This is a book with a lot to live up to. First off, it’s called Kid Vs. Squid. Is it possible to come up with an awesomer title for a middle grade book? I’ve tried, and until I’m presented with evidence to the contrary I’m going to assume that this is the awesomest middle grade title of all time. After considering the title, we move on to the cover. A young man who looks like he probably has his own show on the Disney Channel leans nonchalantly on a weapon while a giant squid looms in the background giving him the evil eye. Again, this is a cover with an awesome-factor that is almost off the charts. So, the big question: can a book possibly live up to all this awesome-ness?
I’m glad to say that somehow this book does it. Thatcher is spending his summer in Las Huesas, California with his great-uncle. A summer without parents in a beach town sounds pretty good – until you meet the great-uncle and see the beach town. Las Huesas is strangely deserted, and Uncle Griswald has a bad habit of forgetting about basic things like food and lives inside Professor Griswald’s Museum of the Strange and Curious – which is even creepier and mustier than it sounds. Phone and internet don’t seem to work in Las Huesas, so the only contact Thatcher has with the outside world is postcards from his parents that say things like “Dear Thatcher, We think we’ve found a great deal on polymer injection molds! Love and huggies.” (pg. 12, quotes taken from ARC and are subject to change.) Worst of all, the only kids around are a couple of guys on bikes who keep muttering about “flotsam” and look a little bit like squid. Things take a turn for the exciting when Thatcher catches a burglar in the act of stealing the museum’s prize What-Is-It. Giving chase, Thatcher finds himself in the middle of the town’s mystery, and he has to battle a curse-happy witch and some seriously nasty sea creatures. Along the way Thatcher joins forces with Shoal, a princess of the Lost City of Atlantis, and Trudy, who is a hysterical cross between Nancy Drew and Batman.
It all sounds pretty ridiculous. And it is pretty ridiculous – but the tone is somewhere in between charging into this goofy story with no holds barred and slyly self-aware, and somehow van Eekhout hits that sweet spot that lets you laugh at how silly the story is and genuinely care about what happens at the same time. And the silliness really is laugh-out-loud funny. Thatcher, as the narrator, is definitely central to making the tone of this book work. He is a naturally funny guy, and the kind of person who just starts running his mouth when he gets confused or scared. As he puts it,
I respond to bullies and teachers with funny comments, sharp little put-downs, and sometimes if my victim shows signs of weakness, I can’t stop myself. My words are like a cheetah taking down a gazelle by the throat. (pg. 8.)
But Thatcher, a man of words, is tossed into situation after situation where he has to step outside of his comfort zone and take action. Especially since his words get him into trouble as often as they get him out of it – as it turns out, talking back to a witch is not the best of ideas. Luckily he has the delightful Trudy to back him up, and to pull a never-ending number of supplies and gadgets out of her backpack. Trudy is a force of nature, and it’s her enthusiasm that convinces Thatcher to ditch his usual habit of commenting from the sidelines.
The pace of this book is quick, especially as it gets to the climax. In the last few chapters the action gets a little bit too frantic – the book is at it’s best when Thatcher’s voice and wry sense of humor can really shine through. But the fast pace and constant action will pull readers along, making this a great choice for reluctant readers. Between the great action, the sense of humor, and the mythology of the lost City of Atlantis, I would definitely hand this to my younger Percy Jackson fans.
Greg van Eekhout on the web
Reviewed from ARC provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter.