This is an engaging story on the middle grade level focusing on three fifth-grade students at a private school. Tamaya and Marshall are cutting through the woods on the way home from school to avoid a bully, Chad, who had threatened to beat up Marshall. Unfortunately, the three of them end up encountering a mutated form of a high-energy organism originally developed at a nearby industrial plant. They don’t know what it is, but Tamaya calls it “fuzzy mud” because that is what it looks like to her. When Chad attacks them, she throws some in his face and she and Marshall run off. The next day, Chad is missing, and Tamaya’s hand is covered in blisters. Tamaya suspects something awful happened to Chad, and she leaves school to look for him in the woods. Then Marshall takes off to look for Tamaya. Meanwhile, the fuzzy mud keeps replicating and spreading.
Intermittent chapters are presented as excerpts of government hearings held before and after this event, about the nature and safety of the organism, called an “ergonym.” At the end of each chapter featuring Tamaya, the author inserts some cautionary math to show the incredible results of what happens when a number keeps doubling, just as the ergonym’s population does every thirty-six minutes. As the organisms’s inventor, Jonathan Fitzman, points out at the hearings, in twelve hours you have more than a million, and by the next afternoon, more than a trillion.
Discussion: There are many parallels between this book and Zombie Baseball Beatdown, the middle grade book by Paolo Bacigalupi. I thought Bacigalupi did a better job of presenting the environmental issues, and while Bacigalupi’s corporate perpetrators might have been fairly evil, they didn’t seem silly or unrealistic, whereas I thought the character of scientist Jonathan Fitzman was both.
On the positive side, the home life of Tamaya, Marshall, and Chad allows the author to add a number of complications to the environmental issue, including single parenting, bullying, peer pressure, and moral questions, which Sachar treats with sensitivity and understanding. And as always, Sachar has a way of making you warm up to characters you start out thinking you wouldn’t like at all; but by the end of the book they have wormed their way into your heart.
Evaluation: This would make an excellent discussion book for middle grade readers, because it raises lots of issues both personal and political that would interest them and generate debate.
Published by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, 2015