Review By JENNIFER GANNETT
At first blush, a whodunnit about a mysterious death in FunJungle, a glitzy animal theme park, might not be considered a great choice for aware veg kids and their families or friends. However, Stuart Gibbs’s Belly Up (Amazon affiliate link) is written with a crisp, clever plot and smart, appealing characters. It is a great choice for tweens to learn more about the inner workings of theme parks.
Twelve year-old Theodore Roosevelt Fitzroy (Teddy) and his parents have recently relocated to the middle of Texas from Africa. His mother is an eminent gorilla researcher and his father a renowned wildlife photographer; both were attracted to working at FunJungle by it’s wealthy owner’s promise that this park will be different — the animals will be in habitats that closely mimic their natural environments and allow visitors to observe natural behavior. This doesn’t prove to be true necessarily, but there are many more aspects of the story that provide food for thought. The opening lines find the FunJungle mascot, Harry, mysteriously dead. Who would dispatch a captive hippo? Teddy sets off to find the hippo’s killer, and his or her motivation. Along the way, Teddy encounters many people who help him (including his supportive parents), and some who are trying to scare him off of his quest. The mystery is a fast-paced romp through theme park life– and is eventually solved thanks to Teddy’s efforts.
There are lots of reasons to enjoy this book. Yep, it is about an animal theme park — veg families’ mileage will vary about how they handle those types of parks and attractions in real life. The book features a smart, relatable and wildlife-savvy young protagonist who exhibits awareness of the world around him and quick thinking during critical moments. It also gives readers a look inside the theme park and zoo culture (the author formerly worked at the Philadelphia Zoo) in a refreshingly honest way. For example, Theo often mentions what provisions are put into place for the visitors at the theme park, introducing or reinforcing the concept that visitors’ experiences at these establishments are highly manipulated. The book also educates kids about the trade in wild animals for display, and plants seeds in terms of what that means for the animals themselves and our society as a whole. There is even mention of the Animal Liberation Front — not something usually found in kidlit fare for the tween demographic.
Ages 9 and up.