‘Whale Done’ by Stuart Gibbs is yet another brilliant middle grade addition to the FunJunngle series

If there were an award for best first sentence ever in a novel (and maybe there is), Stuart Gibbs deserves it for the beginning of “Whale Done”: “I would never have seen the whale explode if a kangaroo hadn’t burned down my house.” I’m embarrassed to admit that this eighth book is the first I’ve read in the very popular FunJungle series. I’m always hesitant to jump in and start reading in the middle of a series, but I should have learned with his Spy School novels, which I started reading several books into the series, that Gibbs always provides enough backstory that there’s no need to start at the beginning.

In “Whale Done,” Gibbs takes us away from Texas, where the FunJungle Wild Animal Park is located, to Malibu, conveniently close to where Gibbs resides. He mentions in the Acknowledgements section that many young readers asked him to write a FunJungle mystery about marine life and whales and other sea creatures. This novel is the well-researched, fabulous, thrilling—and very funny—result. So thank you to all the Stuart Gibbs fans who suggested this. It was a brilliant suggestion; almost as brilliant as this novel is.

Teddy is the main character, the sleuth at FunJungle, where his parents work. His mother is the head primatologist and his father is the official photographer, so they also live at the park in employee housing. His girlfriend is Summer, the daughter of J.J McCracken, the billionaire owner of the park. When there is a wildfire, started by the errant kangaroo, all the employee housing is destroyed. Teddy’s father is off to Argentina for a National Geographic shoot, school has two weeks off, and Summer and her mother are leaving for Malibu for a vacation. When Summer invites Teddy to fly on their private jet and accompany them, it sounds like fun. Also accompanying the three is Doc, the head vet at FunJungle, a curmudgeonly sort.

So they all end up in Malibu, and young readers will love learning about life there. Gibbs accurately describes the mansions on the beach and the acrimony between those who want to use the beach, surfers and sun worshippers, and those wealthy people who have their second or third homes there and think that they should have exclusive use of the beach. As part of the action, Gibbs also educates readers about the plight of our oceans and the creatures who reside therein. He describes the horrible fishing process, during which huge ships strip the oceans. One character points out that there are some estimates “that over three hundred thousand whales and dolphins are killed as bycatch every year. Not to mention millions of sharks, sea turtles, and who knows what else.” (Endangered turtles are killed as bycatch, as well.)

There are many, many threats to oceanic wildlife, including whales. In addition to learning about the devastating slaughter of whales through environmentally dangerous fishing practices, container boats that kill them often without even knowing there has been a collision, and the horrific danger to whales from ingesting too much plastic, which fills their stomach and makes it impossible for them to eat enough healthy food to survive, we learn about a different environmental problem: the new reality of the theft of sand from beaches. According to Gibbs, who certainly did his research, “Entire beaches and riverbeds have been stolen. People are getting killed over this.” He explains, through the narrative, that everything from computer chips to windows to concrete, paint and elastic are made of sand. It’s fascinating to learn that while the Sahara might have an enormous amount of sand, it’s the wrong kind when construction is the goal. The narrative explains, “Sand in oceans and rivers is actually very rough on the microscopic level, because most of it has only recently been broken down from larger rocks. But desert sand is smooth and round, because it’s been eroded by the wind for thousands of years.” For construction, the rough kind of sand is needed. And Gibbs provides a brilliant analogy to make it really clear: “It’s the difference between building a pyramid out of Legos and one out of PingPong balls. One’s going to stick together, and the other won’t.”

What makes Gibbs such an entertaining author is that in addition to the important themes and messages he sends to young people in the novels, he also provides plenty of humor. When Teddy and Summer find out who one of the “bad guys” is, there is a chase scene. Gibbs’ vivid description provides the details that make it humorous: “Several caterers tried to grab the chimp, but it defended itself with baked goods, pelting them with apple-rhubarb crumble and raspberry cheesecake.” There are thrown empanadas and a banana cream pie, a pelican swallows an entire smoked salmon, and a zebra kicks a honey-smoked ham.

This is a book that has everything a young reader might want – action, excitement, plenty of realistic dialogue, an admirable main character, quirky other characters, an incredible setting, information about the oceans and animals, and the fact that the kid solves not just one, but two mysteries. Long-time fans of Gibbs won’t be disappointed, and new readers will surely become fans. Kids also love his other series, including the Charlie Thorne series and the Spy School series, featuring the latest entry, “Spy School: Project X.”

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher, Simon and Schuster, for review purposes.