Review: The What On Earth Institute of Wonder
Lisa Nicol’s whimsical way with words is becoming the stuff of legend. Her narratives are an intoxicating mix of wonderment, cheek and incredible heart; a strange combination but one that makes her middle grade novels fulfilling and memorable. The What on Earth Institute of Wonder perpetuates this premise while managing to incorporate an African forest elephant and a New Zealand Kakapo into the same sentence, never mind the same Kombi van! And yes! I knew I was in for something special once a Kombi was mentioned.
At its heart, this story is a vigorous nod towards biodiversity and the need to repair the ‘magnificent jigsaw puzzle’ of Earth and all its creatures. It is also a rollicking tale of adventure, misfortune, villainous wrong-doers and the extreme force of friendship. We are cautioned by Nicol’s that this is a strange story, the type that is often hard to believe but of course, for most children that is of little consequence. So when Sal befriends a talking parrot and then discovers an African forest elephant in her hometown of Larry whose reputation as the world’s most unlucky, insignificant town, things take a deliciously quirky fantastical turn.
Combining the fates of two endangered species with the forces of her doomsday afflicted younger brother, Roy and roguishly capable teen neighbour, Bartholomew, Sal sets out to rescue the music-loving elephant from a life of incarcerated good intentions and no-good profiteering.
Hector, the talking Kakapo, provides hilarious comic relief and the conduit for Sal’s mysterious ancestral backstory. And aside from the rib-tickling references about Larry’s infamous ties to excrement and sewage works, this story also possess tanks-full of heart and tenderness. Parental relationships, loss, dealing with grief, anxiety, bullying and the power of self-expression are all touched on as Sal and co. make one last desperate attempt to whisk the elephant to safety, a-la-Sound-of-Music-over-the-mountains-style … in a Kombi! Succeed or fail, the outcome propels us toward a delightful twist.
The expression, ‘What on earth?’ is used to emphasis surprise and disbelief, no matter how it is reworded yet it is no surprise how engrossing this tale is as we encounter wonders on every page. Somehow, they are more believable than the alternative; the everyday, boring relatable normalness of life that truly defies explanation, which makes The What On Earth Institute of Wonder well worth signing up for. For those with strong desires for adventure, conservation and good vs. evil old fashioned fun, join Sal, Bart and Roy as soon as you can.
What On Earth Institute of Wonder
Author: Lisa Nicol
Publisher: Puffin Books, $16.99
Publication Date: August 2021
For ages: 9+
Type: Middle Grade Fiction