"On Career Day Lily visited her dad's work with him and discovered that he worked for a mad scientist who wanted to rule the earth through destruction and desolation."
M.T. Anderson's first book in his Thrilling Tales series for middle-grade readers opens with this intriguing statement, and presents an outlandish, ridiculously far-fetched mystery adventure story, an homage to (and satire of) the pulp science fiction and adventure tales, with a healthy dash of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys stories, Tom Swift, Goosebumps and H.G. Wells thrown in for good measure.
When Lily discovers her father's boss is actually some sort of whale/human hybrid, and that he has some diabolical plans up his sleeve, she knows she has to do something - even though her father thinks there is a perfectly legitimate reason for the fact that his boss wears a grain sack over his head, has blue rubbery skin, and accidentally lets it slip in conversation that he's planning on taking over the world.
She turns to her two best friends for help, knowing that they will believe her. Katie Mulligan lives in Horror Hollow (and therefore has extensive experience with supernatural creatures such as zombies, vampires, and flesh-eating viruses) - she is even featured in her own series of action/adventure novels, the Horror Hollow series. Jasper Dash, Lily's other friend, also has a series of books written about him and his adventures as a Boy Technonaut. Lily is shy and does not have a series of books about her, but Katie and Jasper are confident that, with her intelligence and pluck, she will figure out a way to save the day. They are adamant that she remain the heroine in this story, and they will lend their talents as sidekicks during her struggle to save mankind.
This book is bound to have appeal for kids who enjoy Lemony Snicket, as well as those who have read enough Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Goosebumps books to understand the satire and tongue-in-cheek humor. Personally I did not find that the mix of completely over-the-top events and the glib author asides as appealing as many of the series' popular fans. Yes, I adore the image of whales surging from the ocean, supported by specially made stilts, stomping across the land with laser beams shooting destruction from their eyes - who wouldn't? But I never felt any real connection to any of the characters, and that lack of emotional resonance makes me unlikely to pick up further titles in this series (although I highly recommend Feed, a memorable and powerful YA novel by this same author).
I read this one aloud to my 8- and 10-year-old girls. The older one loved it, couldn't wait to get back to it at reading time, and groaned with disappointment when it came time to close the book for the evening. The 8-year-old was less enamored and would not have minded had we chosen not to finish it.
I found the illustrations to be a wonderful accompaniment to the text - from the pictures that depict characters exactly as they are described (it irritates me when an illustrator doesn't bother to read the text) to the very funny vintage-style advertisements for items such as Horrow Hollows book #241 and Jasper Dash's Gargletine Breakfast Drink).
Books in M.T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales series:
1. Whales on Stilts
2. The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen
3. Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware
Whales on Stilts (#1 in M.T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales series) by M.T. Anderson; illustrated by Kurt Cyrus (Harcourt, Inc., 2005)
Also reviewed at:
Burning Leaves: "Whales on Stilts probably contains more outrageous, overblown fun than most of the books I’ve read as of late, even if it’s skewed towards a younger audience."
Confessions of a Bibliovore: "Every five seconds, I looked up from the book and went "Huh?!??!" The rest of the time I was rolling around laughing."