In “The Water Bears” by Kim Baker, Newt Gomez lives on an almost magical island, Murphy Island, with his family. The island had been a resort with unusual animals and a carnival atmosphere, and now a school is housed in what were the resort buildings. In the middle of the island is Gertrude Lake, where a Loch Ness-type creature named Marvelo is said to live. Newt’s father says he’s seen it, but Newt doesn’t believe it exists.
Newt has been suffering since he was attacked by a bear. His knee is permanently damaged, and the scars embarrass him and make his family uncomfortable. He has nightmares about being attacked by the bear, and he doesn’t want to do things he used to do with his best friend Ethan.
Baker captures Newt’s longing to go to middle school on the mainland, where his older brother went, so that he can be around other kids who have Latino last names and eat food like fideo and albóndigas at his abuela’s house. He also wants to live with his grandmother on the mainland, which devastates Ethan.
When instead of a bike, which is what he wanted for his birthday, his father gives him an old taco truck — he’s 13 years old — he is both horrified and embarrassed. But driving the taco truck around the island proves to help Newt make new connections and help people in spite of his handicap. He and his best friend find a wooden bear washed up on the beach and drag it to the truck, and Ethan becomes convinced that the bear can grant wishes. Then another bear appears in the story as Newt learns about tardigrades, microscopic creatures called water bears.
In Newt Gomez, Baker has created a sympathetic main character whose plight is realistic. We feel for Newt and we want him to heal, both physically and emotionally. And we get to watch while some of that happens over the course of the summer we share with the characters on Murphy Island and the bears (not the one that attacked Newt) they happen across in the story.
Middle grade kids will enjoy this quirky novel, and it’s one that can lead to some great discussions about PTSD and friendship.
Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by Wendy Lamb Books, the publisher, for review purposes.