Lisa Nicol, The What On Earth Institute of Wonder, Penguin Random House, August 2021, 288 pp., RRP $16.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781761041556
The What on Earth Institute of Wonder by Lisa Nicol is a story of three kids who live in the town of Larry. Sal is big sister to 8-year-old Roy who is a doomsday prepper – someone who is prepared for any emergency, especially the end of the world kind. They live next door to teenage Bartholomew who is a lover of music and a gentle soul. Sal herself is very special, as she can talk to animals, well one animal anyway, a Kakapo who turned up one day in the tree outside her window. With trouble at home, the three friends seek solace in each other and then in the plight of an elephant (yes, a real life elephant) that mysteriously appears in town. Up until then, nothing good was ever associated with Larry, it was literally known as ‘crap’ town due to its huge sewage plant and thought to be populated with losers. The elephant brings hope and opportunity to Larry, but Sal wonders at what cost to the elephant itself?
From the moment I began to read this middle grade, speculative fiction novel, I knew it was a goodie. It will make readers smile, yearn, feel sad and most of all wonder with its themes of family, belonging, overcoming obstacles, finding your own voice and the dilemma of humankind vs the natural world.
There are many thoughtful ideas and ah-ha moments gently placed within the story. One that particularly stuck for me was… ‘He didn’t need a book to know she felt the same things in her heart that he did. Those same feelings he struggled to explain, but tried to share…’. This is at a real low for Bartholomew and it perfectly captures his attempt at connection with the world, a connection which young adults crave and are constantly trying to figure out.
The main characters felt real and relatable but still quirky enough to make them interesting with Hector the Kakapo a real highlight. The only negative is the depiction of the antagonist Mr Longhorn and indeed some of the other adults. Longhorn in particular is a bit overdone. His portrayal is too black and white in a book that otherwise manages to navigate the greys of life expertly.
There is mild swearing throughout the book, but even though it did give me an initial jolt, as I’m not accustomed to ‘crap’ etc being seen in a middle grade novel, I was happy to see it there. It lent an authenticity to the narrative that kids will appreciate, and its use was appropriate.
The best books leave you wanting more and cause an intellectual or emotional itch in your mind. I have ruminated on certain aspects and ideas within the book well after I have finished and have a strong suspicion these itches will be scratched, and the story will give up more of its secrets with a reread.
A quirky, heartfelt, unique story of friendship, family and conviction that is sure to be eaten up by kids aged 9-13. The What on Earth Institute of Wonder will appeal to readers of contemporary and speculative fiction and animal lovers. It is perfect for kids who enjoyed Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee, Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo and The Dog Runner by Bren McDibble.
Reviewed by Renee Mihulka