Filmmaker Kowatch brings larger-than-life characters and action scenes to middle grade readers in this highly visual mix of literary seriousness and fun adventure. Ocean River and Ellen Hansen, both age 12, are best friends—until Ellen’s father dies in a car crash and clumsy Ocean accidentally disrupts his funeral. When their parents take them on a vacation to the Everglades a couple months later, guilt-ridden Ocean isn’t even sure they can be friends again, and Ellen barely speaks to him. But their airboat crashes, and Ocean and Ellen must work together to find their parents and escape the dangerous swamp. On their journey they acquire supernatural talents and befriend an eccentric wood stork, a guileless soft-shell turtle, and Gumbo, a yoga-practicing, pacifist alligator who’s next in line to become king of the Everglades.
Kowatch’s descriptions and Shinn’s charming digital illustrations will leave readers feeling like they’ve stomped through the Everglades alongside Ocean and Ellen. The relationships are depicted with wonderful depth. Gumbo and his pals often meditate together, Ocean and Ellen talk about grief and growing up, Ocean’s parents share important lessons with him, and each character takes turns leading, encouraging, and sacrificing for the others in a way that feels sincere and psychologically healthy.
Yet all of these elements create a text that is sometimes busy and complicated. Chapters are told from various perspectives and the book blends Seminole mythology with Eastern spiritual practices, which may leave younger readers confused, uninterested, or just wanting more of the lively dialogue. However, the book’s quirkiness and cartoon-style illustrations, as well as its loose ends (perhaps left open for a sequel?), will likely keep them hooked. For kids entering adolescence in the 21st century, an adventure that includes real-life heaviness, environmental awareness and activism, meditation and affirmation, and a little bit of the absurd seems just right.
Takeaway: Tween readers (and their parents and teachers) will love the values, hardships, laughs, and learning in Kowatch’s thoughtful adventure fantasy.
Great for fans of the Magic School Bus series, the Magic Tree House series.