Just mention the name Chris Grabenstein to any child who reads middle grade books. They’ll ooh about “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library” and be anxious to read anything he’s written, including his newest book, the second in the “Welcome to Wonderland” series, “Beach Party Surf Monkey.”
The main characters are P.T. Wilkie (after P.T. Barnum, his grandfather’s hero) and Gloria Ortega, who with her sportscaster dad lives at the Wonderland Motel. During their tourist “tours,” P.T. does the schtick while Gloria has the business brains of the pair. They are busy thinking of ways to cash in on their fantastic recovery of stolen jewels (from “Welcome to Wonderland: Home Sweet Motel”). They soon find out that a movie is going to be filmed in St. Pete — somewhere — and they are determined to make sure that it’s at their motel.
But when they do nab the gig, it turns out to be more difficult than one might expect. P.T. has dreams of being famous and making enough money that they won’t have to sell the motel, his grandfather’s dream, to the slimy next-door neighbor, Mr. Conch, who wants to buy their motel to raze it and add attractions to his high-rise, nondescript, modern hotel.
Among the other characters, teen idol Aidan turns out to be a spoiled brat who couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag. He wants to replace the YouTube sensation Kevin the Monkey with a pig, and he wants to replace Academy Award winning teenage actress Cassie McGinty with his girlfriend. In the middle of the movie meltdown, Kevin the monkey disappears. P.T. suspects shenanigans, but doesn’t know who kidnapped the monkey or where he is.
In addition to the quick-talking P.T. and the quick-thinking Gloria, the hotel-owner next door, Mr. Conch, is quite a character. He thinks big and talks big. His favorite thing to say is,”Everything we do it magnificent, first-class, and high-quality. And the portions are huge!” He tells guests that “you always get what you want because I always get what I want!” Intentionally or unintentionally, his persona will remind adult readers of a very famous “bigly” personality. And Conch’s daughter, Veronica, whines appropriately and is as sneaky and dishonest as her father is unethical.
P.T. and Gloria’s battle with these two villains while our two heroes try to keep P.T.’s mom from selling the motel to Mr. Conch keeps the pages turning. And reading P.T.’s tall tales plus the movie makers’ troubles and adventures will keep all readers chuckling. Everyone will be rooting for Kevin the Monkey to win out over Porker the pig, and for P.T. and Gloria to win out over Mr. Conch and Veronica.
By befriending Cassie, the famous actress, P.T. learns that fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and he realizes that he’s quite content being able to live his normal, happy life without having to put on a disguise every time he goes out.
While not exactly a piece of literary genius — it’s not meant to be — this is a perfect beach read for any kid from third grade through sixth grade. They’ll love it. And then they’ll be ready for the next book in the motel series, “Banana Shack Shake-Up,” coming out next year.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Random House Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.