Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Did I just read Tiger King for fifth graders?

I actually hadn’t planned on writing about Belly Up and the Fun Jungle series but the horrible Artemis Fowl movie made me realize how it avoids several of the pitfalls I’ve seen in kids books. So here I go. You can stop reading now if you feel like it.

I had very low expectations when I decided to read Belly Up, the first book the the Fun Jungle series by Stuart Gibbs. A young adult book about a kid who lives in ‘the world’s largest safari park’ and solves mysteries? Dear lord, the elevator pitch sounds hokey.  I expected a wish-fulfillment, too-good-too-be-true-setting and adults who were too dumb to chew bubblegum, let alone walk at the same time.

While the titular Fun Jungle is still too good to be true, there was more cynical realism than I was expecting. There is animal abuse, smuggling, corruption, greed and just plain stupidity. Other than the main character’s parents, every adult is flawed, often with ugly secrets. It’d be false advertising but you could call it Tiger King for sixth graders.

In the first book, Teddy has to deal with the murder of the park’s mascot hippo, which causes a lot of other nastiness to come to the surface. I’m not spoiling anything since the hippo dies in the first chapter and is a rather mean beast anyway (possibly to make it easier for a younger audience to accept an animal’s death but it also adds a lot of possible motives)

Along the way, we get some discussions about conservation, some interesting animal facts and some healthy cynicism. All done in a conversational tone so it doesn’t feel too forced or obvious. It still is forced and obvious but what  else would you expect from educational entertainment for middle schoolers?

More than that, many young adult books I’ve read have the grown-ups act like incompetent fools in order to make the kids look smart and get anything done and not get killed. If I went into examples, it would be enough to write another blog. But while the adults in Belly Up can be greedy, arrogant or corrupt, only the security guard Marge is actually incompetent. Functional adults made the book more believable and tense.

Belly Up isn’t the best young adult I’ve ever read. Things ends up far too nicely and neatly resolved to be believable. (If the next book starts with Teddy being named in a ton of lawsuits for what happened during the hippo’s funeral, I retract that statement) But I went in expecting garbage and I left planning on reading the next book.

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