There are few books that offer unadulterated joy from beginning to end. But The Fabulous Zed Watson! is a middle-grade wonder: a literary mystery and Onward-esque road-trip story that celebrates self-described nerds and weirdos, and reinforces the power of friendship.
The novel starts in a library, where tween Zed Watson does all their interneting, since their parents have enforced a “no screens until you’re 16” rule. The librarian positively reacts to Zed’s chosen name and they/them pronouns, and the scene is set for a story that centres on a non-binary character while not being about traumatic gender-identity experiences. No one is more confident in who they are than Zed. “I’m a very flamboyant and well-regarded drama kwing,” they say. “Kwing is a combo of ‘queen’ and ‘king’ for us theydies and gentlethems.”
Zed is completely obsessed with a Gothic novel called The Monster’s Castle, which tells the tortured love story of a werewolf and a vampire. Although, Zed can’t be sure if the monsters’ true love prevails because the author only released four chapters of the book years ago and then hid the rest. Zed spends their free time conversing online with 35 other members of The Monster’s Castle fan site trying to crack the author’s clues and find the location of the full manuscript.
A chance in-person meeting with Gabe, one of the other site members, leads to a breakthrough in the mystery, and together Zed and Gabe chart out a possible route to the treasure. Gabe is a silent brooder who dresses in all black and loves opera. A typical outfit for Zed, on the other hand, is a “purple sweater with funky squares and white-and-black-striped sweatpants,” and they know all the lyrics and dance moves to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” Gabe likes the flora and fauna found in The Monster’s Castle, while Zed is all about the creatures of the night. At first, Gabe seems shy in the face of Zed’s theatrics and passion, but he’s drawn to his new friend’s intellect, humour, and wordplay. When Gabe rattles off the Latin scientific name of a flower, Zed drolly replies, “I’ll take your weird for it.”
Driving the car, and chaperoning the tweens on this ambitious quest from their home in Canada to somewhere in the southwest United States, is Gabe’s sister, Sam, a geology student heading back to school at the University of Arizona. She’s scarily tough and easily annoyed by all the over-the-top Zed-thusiasm, while never being mean or insensitive. Plus, she’s a softy when it comes to her quiet brother. The three of them bicker and support each other through a series of challenging puzzles and mishaps, and meet a host of strange middle-American characters along the way. While the book’s heart is the dynamics between the characters, the mystery itself is expertly integrated into the plot and the snippets from The Monster’s Castle will leave readers wanting more from that novel within a novel.
Kidlit vet Kevin Sylvester co-authors Zed with his adult child Basil, who’s non-binary, and together they’ve achieved something quite special and rare in how the novel portrays the issues facing non-binary kids. Zed is never teased or taunted by peers or the people they encounter on their trip. But sometimes well-meaning adults mistakenly misgender them (be it as a boy or a girl), which can get Zed down. And having to produce any legal identification is their Kryptonite. “It can be humiliating to have to answer questions based on information that’s not about who you are,” Zed thinks when handing over their passport – with their assigned gender and birth name (a.k.a. dead name) – to the border guard.
But Zed’s spirit is unbreakable, and they have many wonderfully creative ways of coping and moving forward. “That’s why I’m so into monsters,” Zed explains to Gabe. “Monsters don’t let how people see them affect how they see themselves.” While these introspective moments are sweet and relatable, the book is most rollicking and engaging when Zed is fully living out loud. In their words, “It’s all part of my Zedly charm.”