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Kirkus Review

Kowatch combines Everglades ecology, with a tale of survival, friendship, and fantasy in this debut adventure novel for middle-grade readers.

Ocean River and Ellen Hansen, both 12 years old, are inseparable friends. After the untimely death of Ellen’s father, Ocean jeopardizes his bond with her when he accidentally disrupts the funeral. The rift grows until the two find themselves stuck together on vacation with Ellen’s mother and Ocean’s parents in Everglades National Park. When their airboat crashes, the tweens awaken to find themselves on their own, and they must work together to survive. Ocean and Ellen discover that they’re in “a freakish world” where “animals did yoga and chanted with beads, where ghosts and jumbo pythons roamed, [and] where raccoons had strange hairstyles.”

Their allies include a peaceful alligator who happens to be a “yogi master” and future king of the Everglades, a baby turtle, a wise wood stork, a fluffy dog, helpful pelicans, fierce dolphins, and a talkative lizard. These friends help them take on a mutant python and his children, scheming “playboy raccoons,” wily river otters, and up-to-no-good ospreys. The kids’ journey winds through exquisitely described swamp ecosystems, subtly distorted by man-made elements, such as global warming, pesticides, escaped exotic pets, and residual engine oil.

The rich descriptions of wildlife ecosystems make this book worth reading by all audiences; however, the action does have a cartoonish, made-for-TV feel that makes it most suitable for middle-grade readers. The book’s moral lessons are valid but still feel pat on delivery; for example, Ocean concludes too easily that “I need to live in the present moment and forgive the past, including my mistakes and [Ellen’s].”

Still, young readers will benefit from the book’s depictions of forgiveness within friendship, grief, resilience, and teamwork. (The book includes periodic black-and-white illustrations by Shinn that reflect the action of the story.)

A whimsical odyssey featuring a playfully bizarre cast of characters.

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Booklife Reviews

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.