Oddly enough, the last time I had enough get-up-and-go to write a review, it was for another of A.S. King’s books. Perhaps that is praise enough.
King has woven many of the themes from her YA work into this weird, charming middle grade, and I loved that–I found it compelling to see toxic masculinity and environmental degradation through the eyes of a younger, more vulnerable kid.
The kid himself–Obe–is sweet, sensitive, and smart, but not precious. I think there are a LOT of boys like him in the world, but not very many books about those boys. As a mom to one, I was grateful to see him being a protagonist. He’s an uncertain, tentative protagonist, sure, but he’s also a protagonist with a real spine (a spine he puts to formidable use in standing up for his friend Annie in one of the most moving sequences in the novel).
And my own kids were wide eyed at there being a book about a family who lived on the last wild patch by the creek in a development of “new spacious homes!”–since that’s essentially where we live.
My main critique of the book is that it comes across as a little too didactic, and I think in a large part that’s because of the “told” style King chose. Every chapter starts with “There were/was…” and it’s clear by the end that the novel is positioned like To Kill A Mockingbird: an older narrator re-inhabiting a childhood space.
That said, I think the didactic component might work quite well for a younger middle grade audience. For example, the “Earth Facts” on the announcements at Obe’s school–and his responses to them–will feel very urgent, important, and realistic to lots of kids who read them. My 8yo, for one!
As for the surreal element (Marvin Gardens himself), I’m not sure it worked as well as surrealism typically does in King’s novels because ultimately Marvin functioned more like a plot device than anything.
Still, I am glad I read it and plan to recommend it to several readers I know.