Today I present to you the thrilling conclusion of the 4-part series on the work of Greg Van Eekhout. Kid vs. Squid is Van Eekhout’s first book for Scholastic, Inc, published in 2011, however it was the last book we read. In my son’s opinion, though he enjoyed it, he thought it was the weakest of the four; his comment was, ‘I think he got better at writing as he went along.’
But despite that lukewarm review, we really did enjoy our reading of Kid vs. Squid, so don’t write it off completely. It’s the story of Thatcher Hill, a preteen boy spending the summer on the seashore in Los Huesos, California. But lest you think this is a vacation, it isn’t! He’s been shipped off to Los Huesos to live with his great uncle Griswald, who he hardly knows.
Thatcher is an only child; he lives in Phoenix with his parents, who own the largest distributorship of squirt guns in Arizona. They’re both traveling through Asia during this particular summer, touring squirt gun factories in exotic locales. But in a cruel twist of fate, Thatcher was unable to join them, due to a classmate contracting something called kangaroo rat virus, resulting in an unfortunately timed quarantine for our young protagonist.
Griswald is his mother’s uncle and he’s certainly… different. He owns a museum on the boardwalk that houses the kinds of oddities and curiosities that one may have found in an old-time circus or side show. Crammed between a hotdog stand and a tattoo shop, the museum holds such wonders as shrunken heads, an octopus wearing sneakers, a fish with a handlebar mustache, that sort of thing. Griswald even had a headless mummy that had washed up on the shore. It appeared to have tattoos running along its skin but Griswald said that without a head, it wasn’t valued or wanted by anyone else.
The most curious piece in the collection was the What-Is-It. So… what is it? Well according to the book, it’s a barnacle encrusted box containing the head of some poor, unfortunate soul. Through a green glass panel on the box, you could make out a face – an eyelid, a nose and downturned lips. Griswald said it was an important head, though a past accident had affected his memory and he couldn’t remember exactly why.
It didn’t matter much to Thatcher. His summer responsibilities were pretty simple. He was to water the plants, feed the cat, dust the shrunken heads, clean the What-Is-It (without opening the box!) and have lunch. By Thatcher’s estimation, it was now time to eat. However, the frozen pizza procured by his bachelor uncle was inedible, sending him out to hunt for food from the boardwalk. Before he heads out, Griswald tells him to be careful, that there’s a lot of ‘wickedness’ on the shore this time of year. When Thatcher asks what he means, Griswald simply repeats to be careful.
All along the boardwalk, businesses remained boarded up, closed off to the public. Thatcher thought this strange, as it was the first week of June and there wasn’t a single tourist in sight. He turns away from watching the ocean to find that he’s being watched, as well. Two boys, about his age, are perched on bikes a few yards away. They wore their sweatshirt hoods up, with bandannas and sunglasses so it was hard for Thatcher to see much about their faces.
These kids were strange; they didn’t respond to his greeting, instead using their bike tires to edge closer to toward Thatcher, eventually getting so close that they nearly touched his legs. He tries to be a tough guy but it doesn’t really suit him. He’s always relied on humor to get him out of tough situations but somehow these guys don’t seem like the joking type.
In a gurgling voice, one of the boys asks Thatcher a curious question: ‘Are you flotsam?’ Perplexed, he’s not sure how to respond. The other boy answers that he can’t be flotsam, as he’s not in the book he’s pulled from his pocket. Having determined that Thatcher isn’t a person of interest, the boys prepare to leave. As they do, one boy’s wrist is exposed when his shirt sleeve rises up. His skin is bright white, almost like plastic, and transparent with thin black veins running under the surface.
The boys tell Thatcher that they’ll be watching him, before popping wheelies and riding away. That evening, Griswald asks if anything interesting happened and seemed almost disappointed when Thatcher decided against telling him about the strange boys. But why would Griswald be disappointed about his nephew having an uneventful day in town? Thatcher thought it odd but brushed it off and went to bed.
That night, he’s awakened, though he’s not sure why. As he lay in bed, he hears the sound of glass shattering, yet Griswald doesn’t seem to be disturbed. Terrified, Thatcher decides to investigate on his own, certain that he was about to encounter the jellyfish boys (as he’d decided to call them) again. So imagine his surprise to find a girl about his age, standing in front of him, holding the What-Is-It!
She immediately flees, with Thatcher right behind her. But once they leave the boardwalk and reach the beach, Thatcher injures his foot on something sharp. The girl’s lead grows to the point that she can no longer be caught, at least not tonight. When Thatcher gets home, he attends to his foot while Griswald takes inventory of the museum. Nothing else seems to be missing, not even the cash box. But what would anyone want with that disgusting, bloated head?
Griswald seemed to think it had been stolen because it was of great value or importance. He thought it might be both but his clouded memory wouldn’t let him think straight. Thatcher doubted the head was valuable or important and went back to bed. As he drifted off to sleep, he was sure that the air whistling through the pipes made the sound, ‘flotsam’.
Kid vs. Squid follows Thatcher’s adventures to return the What-Is-It to its rightful owner, though it’s not always clear who the owner is! Along the way, he makes friends with a whip smart local girl who tries to keep him focused on the mission and also meets the long-suffering princess of a beleaguered oceanic kingdom. Can Thatcher and his friends save an entire civilization from a lifetime of summers working the boardwalk and winters adrift at sea? I suspect he will but… you’ll have to read the book to find out for sure!