Screenwriter, poet, and author Esta Spalding dips her toe into the ocean of children’s writing with her debut middle-grade novel, the first in a series about a family of loosely related children who have been abandoned by their parents and live in a car on a tropical island reminiscent of Hawaii.
The four Fitzgerald-Trouts – Kim, Kimo, Pippa, and Toby – share a combination of parents. The girls, Kim and Pippa, have the same mother, while the boys, Kimo and Toby, have another. Kimo has a different father from the other three.
As the eldest, 11-year-old Kim is the de facto leader, and the designated driver. Kim’s daily to-do list includes a rotating roster of items, from cleaning out the cooler that contains the siblings’ milk to making school lunches to fixing Pippa’s glasses. One item – find a house – remains constant, and as the novel opens, it has suddenly become clear to Kim that after three years of living in the car on their own, this must take precedence over all else. The children are literally outgrowing their cramped quarters, and while the two mothers drop off money from time to time, both claim to be too “terribly busy!” to entertain the notion of the kids moving in with either of them.
Nor will help be forthcoming from the fathers. Dr. Fitzgerald – a scientist obsessed with the rare pygmy possum – lived in the car with the kids, who helped him with his studies until he up and left for a faraway island inhabited by a large colony of the marsupials. Kimo’s father, Johnny, disappeared six years ago. Johnny was trying to recreate the migration of his ancestors – the original settlers of the island – by means of a canoe trip from an unnamed “country across the ocean in the west.” In another bizarre twist, some of the island’s residents believe the original settlers were aliens, a theory possibly borne out by the Fitzgerald-Trouts’ discovery of a “wingless plane.”
If this sounds like the set up for a preposterous tale that incorporates a fantastical plot, quirky characters, and some child-friendly amorality, that’s because Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts is exactly that and more. Each of the children is drawn with idiosyncrasies that render them distinct and endearing, if not entirely believable. And Spalding’s choice to cast herself as both the narrator and a character in the story (who happens to be a writer with a twin sister named Stella who is a successful children’s author) further blurs the lines of realism.
Believability doesn’t appear to be part of Spalding’s mission, however. This is plain fun with an edge, after a Dahl-esque fashion. The parents are collectively referred to as “terrible” and they really are – while the children are resourceful and capable. When the siblings get back to their car after a trip to the laundromat and discover a newborn addition to their ranks, they name her Penny (for luck), determine she is the issue of Toby and Kimo’s mother and her new husband, and undertake caring for the baby. It’s ludicrous, but it works, and kids will likely find it hilarious.
With Penny in the backseat, the car is really too small, and Kim decides to embark on a “mad plan.” Inspired by her favourite book, The Perfects, and its flip-side companion, The Awfuls (written by Stella Spalding, of course), Kim drives through the Sakahatchi Forest, braving the bloodsucking iguanas that inhabit it, on the off chance she’ll find a house on the other side (spoiler: she does).
Spalding sets up the next adventure for the siblings in a manner that is predictable, but that’s okay. Like countless zany literary children who have come before, the Fitzgerald-Trouts will no doubt band together to face whatever is thrown in their path.