I read Gordon Korman’s Swindle a few months back, but for some reason, I didn’t get to the review. Now that I’ve finished the sequel, Zoobreak, I think this book deserves a little attention. ( I mean come on, there is a ferret on that dog’s head for goodness’ sake. It deserves a review for the cover alone).

In Swindle, Korman introduced us to a gang of kids, not all of them friends, but each one of them talented enough to play a role in stealing back a valuable baseball card from Swindle, a lowdown sports memorabilia collector. Their leader is Griffin Bing, a kid who is forever hatching plans and then dragging his friend Ben along for the ride. Griffin and his team have to get past a high-tech security system and a terrifying guard dog known as Luthor in order to get to their prize. They do. It’s a heist story, for middle graders. And it’s fun. In Zoobreak, the team is back, but this time with a mission that is even more personal. Savannah, animal whisperer extraordinaire, is beside herself because Cleo, her capuchin monkey, is gone. She knows Cleo has been monkey-napped. Soon after this discovery, on a class trip to a floating zoo, the kids find Cleo and a lot of other animals kept in miserable conditions. There is no choice. They must mastermind a zoobreak.

What we have here is classic Korman: super-tight plotting, funny characters and a premise guaranteed to grab kids’ attention. Korman isn’t formulaic, he just has this way of combining particular narrative and stylistic elements so that most of his books are very identifiable. I think it has something to do with the fact that there is zero filler in many Gordon Korman books. Every little bit is there to move the plot ahead, and characterization never slows things down for a second. I’m someone who tends to choose character-driven books over plot-driven ones most of the time, so initially, I wondered if characterization in Zoobreak was a weak point. It seems like Korman creates quirky and easily-understood kids straight off, but that they don’t really develop or “go anywhere” as the story advances. Then I considered the fact that in a book like Zoobreak, does it really matter if the characters don’t so much internal growth? Is that needed in a story like this? Not really. There are times when the inner growth of a character is essential to making a story work and crucial to giving it impact for the reader, and then there are times when the conflict is more or less external, and that’s where all the tension comes from. That’s Zoobreak. If aspiring children’s writers need a lesson is how to establish external conflict early on in their novels, and maintain it throughout the narrative, I say, take a look at Zoobreak. Three and a half pages in, the reader already knows what the big problem is going to be. By the end of chapter two, the conflict is well articulated and things just get trickier from there.

It’s hard to think of a kid who wouldn’t be crazy about this book. That’s another thing about Gordon Korman’s writing. It works for lots of different types of readers. I’ll be on the look out for the next in this series (I think three titles have been planned). I can’t wait to see what these kids steal next.

Zoobreak and Swindle are published by Scholastic Press.

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