Review of the Day: It’s the End of the World and I’m In My Bathing Suit by Justin A. Reynolds
Okay, so about nine years ago I wrote a blog post called, “2013 Middle Grade Black Boys: Seriously, People?” And I don’t think it’s going to surprise anybody that I found a whopping five middle grade novels where the main character was a boy who was Black. Three of them were written by sports stars. One was historical fiction about slavery. And one, just one, was contemporary and slightly more fun (by the late great Walter Dean Myers). And I’d like to say that was a low point in publishing, but I literally think that it might have been a good year. Fortunately, #WeNeedDiverseBooks and other organizations were created, publishers saw the idea of publishing a range of voices as good for their bottom line, and voila. Now it is 2022 and things are . . . well, they’re better. Not perfect, but heading in the right direction. To my own personal joy, one of the good things about publishing right now is that we’re beginning to get away from only showing Black characters in moments of tragedy and pain. Silly, funny, downright gross books are beginning to gain some traction. So, it is with great delight that I read It’s the End of the World and I’m in My Bathing Suit. This, for me, felt like a kind of homecoming. A wonderful culmination in what I wished I could have seen way back in 2013. Here we have an incredibly funny writer. Here we have gross stuff (even if it’s just laundry) and silliness, and a cast of kids you’d follow to the end of the Earth… or has the end of the Earth come to them? Utterly carefree and ridiculous, this is a book that never takes itself too seriously. Which, naturally, means that I’m about to.
Bonus Fact: Near the end of this review I will list one downside to the book. You have been warned.
It was the perfect plan. When Eddie made a deal with his parents, which to say his mom and stepdad WBD (a.k.a. “Wanna-Be Dad”), the idea was that he’d do his laundry all summer and they’d stay off his back. Well, it’s halfway through the summer and the day Eddie’s been dreaming of all this time is here. It’s Beach Bash day! The whole town is headed out to Lake Erie for summertime in the fun. Everyone, that is, except Eddie. Turns out his idea to wear a different piece of clothing every day (thereby allowing him to do laundry only once all summer) has caught the attention of his mom and she is NOT pleased. So poor Eddie is stuck at home with laundry to do. And then the power goes out. And all the cell phone reception disappears. And weird fireworks are seen in the sky. And no one who goes to the beach ever, EVER comes back. Eddie’s just met up with four other kids in his neighborhood who also got left behind. He’s in his only wearable piece of clothing, a bathing suit, and suddenly things are weirder, wilder, and goofier than even he could have predicted.
I’m a librarian so naturally one of the first things I’m going to do with this book is see how it’s classified (librarians think that kind of thing is fun. Seriously). So I look at its subject headings and the first thing I see is “Classification: Dystopian”. Now I see why they did that. The title, after all, does appear to sport the words “It’s the End of the World” in there. Usually world ending is on the “dys” end of “topias”. However, I don’t think the cataloger that slotted this book into that category was doing their due diligence because the fact of the matter is that in Eddie I have found one of my favorite types of narrators: The unreliable kindf. Eddie has one goal at the beginning of this book and it is to charm and convince you. Of what? Literally, whatever is popping into his head at a given moment. Once in a while his own internal dialogue will catch him in his own lies (he would not call them lies, by the way) but the fact of the matter is, you don’t know how much to trust him. And, like every truly great unreliable narrator, you’re having too much fun on this joyride to even care. But one fact I simply cannot let go of is this: This may not even be an end-of-the-world book. Seriously, the kids lose power and can’t text and within minutes they’re fairly convinced that civilization itself has collapsed. Seems a bit of a leap.
And Eddie’s kind of a charmer. He might be convincing you that the world is ending. Heck, he might even believe it himself. It’s a little hard to tell in that you’re often laughing too hard about what he’s saying to tell. I read a lot of children’s books in a given year so I have to be choosy about the ones I stick with. Usually, I’ll give a book a good chapter or two to get going. If it can retain my interest during that time, awesome. If it cannot then it’s on to the next! This book? It begins with Eddie telling the child reader how to con adults into believing they’re reading more than they are. I mean, that’s essentially out-and-out bribery right from the start. This is immediately followed by Eddie’s brilliant plan for getting out of doing laundry all summer. So you’ve got a con followed by a con. Who can resist that? Heck, the second con was so good that I ended up just reading passages of the book aloud to my kids. This was better than when I was sitting in my very serious, very grown-up lunchroom at work, reading this book and snorting and snucking like a stuck pig. No lie. There was chortling involved (and Eddie can confirm that that’s a word).
The art of the funny middle grade novel is rare. I can’t tell you how to write one. Mediocre ones are common. Truly hilarious ones? Almost impossible. I swear we sometimes get whole years where there aren’t any funny novels for kids. Not truly funny, I mean. But this book uses a whole slew of techniques and starts interchanging them so rapidly that you never know what Reynolds is going to pull out next. Sometimes he’ll have someone do interior dialogue with an inanimate object (like a spatula). Other times he’ll imagine discussions between two concepts (if the sequence of the universe talking to itself isn’t turned into a one-person show someday, I’ll eat my geranium). He does callbacks. He makes fun of oat milk (it’s low hanging fruit but who can’t appreciate a line like the one that says his stepdad, “…drinks milk that grows outta dirt”?). Like a lot of authors, Reynolds discovered that a lot of what’s funny comes out in dialogue. I sympathize with this, since whenever I write a book, I basically just want to make it pure dialogue and nothing else. And his dialogue is amazing (there’s a part about a false ice cream man that really stands out), but it can’t hold a candle to the internal dialoguing of Eddie himself. His tangents are a thing of beauty. And my favorite moment in the book, bar none, is when someone is pounding on Eddie’s front door, and the reader is just dying to know who it is, when Eddie suddenly makes this right-hand swerve and starts talking about the reader’s emotional vulnerability and how “I wanna meet you where you are, yeah?” It’s clear that Eddie’s been to more than a few therapy sessions in his life. It’s clear that Mr. Reynolds perhaps has too.
In a little author’s note at the beginning of the reviewer’s copy of this book that I received, Justin A. Reynolds says that in writing this book he wanted to make something in the vein of “Adventures in Babysitting,” “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead,” “Home Alone,” etc. In other words, Justin A. Reynolds is my age, or close to it. But you get what he’s saying. He wants to write good-hearted, light -hearted, hearty fun. But he’s got a problem. He has to advance a potentially dire sounding plot, keep things light, introduce at least one actual emotional moment (and pull it off), and also put in some truly wackadoodle moments involving zombies or sports play-by-plays involving dogs. Tonally, that’s a nightmare situation. Plus, as I mentioned before, you’re getting all of this via your hero’s p.o.v. First person can be a blessing or a curse. It works here, but that was never a guarantee.
Now the downside of the book. You knew there’d be one when I started this review, so don’t give me those puppydog eyes now. I’m only telling you this because I care about you. Ready? I’m not going to hold back so open wide for a great big truth sandwich. The down side of this story is . . . it ends on a cliffhanger. Not a literal one. More like, an end of Stuart Little one, with our heroes going off into the sunset. Let it be known that I established a deep and abiding disgruntlement with Stuart Little back in the third grade because of that ending, and I have never ever let my disappointment fade. Of course, Justin A. Reynolds has two great big advantages over E.B. White. 1: He is not dead (I mean, not as of this writing anyway). 2: He can write a sequel. Can and, I certainly hope, will. He’ll have to when the raging hordes of furious pre-teens flood the streets demanding their due. Their funny funny due.
The tangents are going to try to convince you that this book was easy to write. I mean, maybe it was. I don’t know Justin A. Reynolds myself. Maybe he can churn out MG fiction in his sleep. But I think of this book more as an example of clockwork. There are all these intricate moving parts and it’s the author’s job not simply to fit them in but to make them work together. If I could ask Mr. Reynolds a question, just one question, I’d ask him what was the funniest joke he had to cut. Because the editing on this sucker must have been something else. It gives you the feel of off-the-cuff humor but there’s a method to this man’s madness. I think we can definitely declare it a success, no matter what, though. I’ll be curious to see how it does with the kids. To my mind, it’s Wimpy Kid levels of funny, and we haven’t seen a new book like that in a long time. So for its hidden intricacies, gags that land, heart, smarts, and general good-natured attitude, I’d declare this book a success. If the catalogers are right and this truly is a dystopian work, then I can’t think of a better reason to cheer on the end of the world.
New Motto for Justin A. Reynolds: He Makes It Look Easy.
On shelves April 5th
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review
Here’s the author himself giving you a rundown about the book:
I do regret not getting a chance to hear the audiobook of this title, because I think you could have a lot of fun with it. Honestly, I really wish Justin A. Reynolds could have read it himself. Because this narrator they got for the book trailer? The trailer’s great. The narrator needs a serious upgrade:
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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