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Gail Kowatch
Enchanted Everglades
Gail Kowatch, author

Children/Young Adult; Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror; (Market)

The last thing twelve-year-old OCEAN RIVER wanted is to spend time on an Everglades airboat tour with ELLEN HANSEN, a former best friend. When they get lost after their airboat crashes, they receive animal superpowers from a Seminole Indian ghost. With this newfound talent, they recruit GUMBO, a cowardly yogi alligator destined but reluctant to be the next alligator king, BIX, a naïve soft-shelled turtle, and ASHA, a wise old wood stork. They join forces in this funny and heartwarming fantasy set in the fragile ecosystems of the Florida Everglades, where readers encounter nature’s beauty as well as its teeth and claws. In this wondrous journey, they discover that if they ever hope to find their way home, they have to forgive past hurts and peacefully work together as a team.
Filmmaker Kowatch brings larger-than-life characters and action scenes to middle grade readers in this highly visual mix of literary seriousness and fantasy adventure. Ocean River and Ellen Hansen, both age 12, are best friends—until Ellen’s father dies in a car crash and clumsy Ocean accidentally disrupts his funeral. When their parents take them on a vacation to the Everglades a couple months later, guilt-ridden Ocean isn’t even sure they can be friends again, and Ellen barely speaks to him. But their airboat crashes, and Ocean and Ellen must work together to find their parents and escape the dangerous swamp. On their journey they acquire supernatural talents and befriend an eccentric wood stork, a guileless soft-shell turtle, and Gumbo, a yoga-practicing, pacifist alligator who’s next in line to become king of the Everglades.

Kowatch’s descriptions and Shinn’s charming digital illustrations will leave readers feeling like they’ve stomped through the Everglades alongside Ocean and Ellen. The relationships are depicted with wonderful depth. Gumbo and his pals often meditate together, Ocean and Ellen talk about grief and growing up, Ocean’s parents share important lessons with him, and each character takes turns leading, encouraging, and sacrificing for the others in a way that feels sincere.

Yet all of these elements create a text that is sometimes busy and complicated. Chapters are told from various perspectives and the book blends Seminole mythology with Eastern spiritual practices, which may leave younger readers confused, uninterested, or just wanting more of the lively dialogue. However, the book’s quirkiness and cartoon-style illustrations, as well as its loose ends (perhaps left open for a sequel?), will likely keep them hooked. For kids entering adolescence in the 21st century, an adventure that includes real-life heaviness, environmental awareness and activism, meditation and affirmation, and a little bit of the absurd seems just right.

Takeaway: Tween readers (and their parents and teachers) will love the values, hardships, laughs, and learning in Kowatch’s thoughtful adventure fantasy.

Great for fans of the Magic School Bus series, the Magic Tree House series.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A-
Illustrations: A-
Editing: B
Marketing copy: B