Friday, November 02, 2018

Cruise or Bust! Lions and Liars by Kate Beasley

Frederick Frederickson's social status is about as low as it can go. According to his classmate Joel, kids at the top are lions, and at the very bottom of the social ladder, there are the fleas on a meerkat's butt. And that's what Frederick figures he is.

Life at the bottom of the fifth grade hierarchy is no fun, but Frederick at least has the respite of the up-coming family cruise, with its chocolate fountains and gratis strawberry daiquiris to look forward to. But then, when Hurricane Hernando makes a turn southward,the cruise is canceled, and to add insult to injury, Frederick is forced to attend Joel's birthday party, where a cruel but well-aimed dodge ball transforms his nose into a bloody scarlet squash. Fed up, Frederick runs down to the river dock and jumps into Joel's dad's boat, which, it appears, is not securely tied up.

The hapless Frederick loses the paddle, tosses the anchor out without noticing it wasn't tied to the rope, and clumsily lets the motor fall off to boot. Floating rapidly downriver, Frederick is followed only by a rather large and very interested alligator who makes swimming to shore a bad idea.

After a chilly wet night trying to sleep in the boat, Frederick finds himself beached on a sandy shore. He's still wearing his bloody shirt and he hasn't eaten in at least twenty hours But his nose, still sore and bulbous, is apparently still working.

Frederick was alone at the edge of a river. He smelled pancakes and coffee and then heard a man's angry voice crackle through a loudspeaker: "Move it, maggots! Pick up your name tag and report to the welcome meeting ASAP!"

Frederick's legs had cramped, he had a crick in his neck, and he had pulled something in his shoulder. But none of that mattered, because he smelled pancakes!

He limps toward the scent of food, where kind volunteer Miss Betty hands him a sausage wrapped in the world's best pancake. Restored, Frederick picks up the last nametag left on the Welcome Table, bearing the name DASHIELL BLACKWOOD. Portentously, he sees that his new alter ego, Dashiell, has been assigned to Group 13. Miss Betty beams at him, still surrounded in the mesmerizing aura of pancakes.

"Welcome to Camp Omigoshee," she gushed. "Where boys are transformed!"

If anybody ever yearned for a transformation, it's Frederick, and he accepts the identity of no-show Dashiell, decides to go along with the camp thing, and is shown to join his bunkmates, a motley group with odd nicknames--The Professor, Nosebleed, Specs, and Ant Bite--all for good reason, as he soon finds out. Frederick scarcely has time to consider their strange names when the kid in line in front of him turns around to look at his nametag.

His plate toppled. He looked up at Frederick again.

"You're Dash?" the boy asked in a tone of wonder. A hush fell among the boys closest to Frederick.

Whoever the absent Dashiell Blackwood is, he is clearly a lion in the middle-school pecking order, and Frederick decides to go with his deception, at least until after breakfast and until he can find a phone to call home. Not knowing what else to do, he tries to live up to the expectations of the other campers. Having a mega-cool rep seems to work, even when Frederick almost fails at rope climbing. His gung-ho counselor Benjamin assures him that "he's still in the fear stage of transformation," and suddenly it dawns on Frederick that this is no ordinary camp. It's a disciplinary camp where there are some real bad boys, and he's stuck portraying the persona of the baddest Bad Dude of them all, Dashiell Blackwood, a legend in his own time. Frederick's only hope is to get to a land phone and call home for a rescue, and his bunkmates loyally agree to join him in what they think is a candy-raiding midnight break-in of the camp office.

As if assuming an unwonted personality isn't anxiety-provoking enough, Hurricane Hernando takes a turn toward Camp Omigoshee, and the camp has to be evacuated. Frederick is left stranded when he goes back for little Ant Bite in the flooding mess hall, while outside a real lion loose from the Jacksonville Zoo is roaming the woods. During the night the storm surge forces them out and ironically into the same boat that brought Frederick there in the first place.

It looks like fate has taken a hand in his transformation after all, in Kate Beasley's poignant and hilarious Lions and Liars (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018). With some of the secrets of real friendship learned and a consolation cruise complete with a chocolate fountain for Group 13, not to mention a cameo pirate appearance for the real Dashiell Blackwood, Frederick Frederickson finally realizes that he has no fear of the social lions in his future.

Caldecott artist Dan Santat's full-page black and white illustrations are inspired, bringing Camp Omigoshee to comic life, and the story is both empathetic and terrifically funny. Says the The Wall Street Journal's reviewer, "Ms. Beasley does something admirable with her food-chain metaphor. A bit like Chekhov's gun, the metaphorical lion from the first act turns into a real one, adding a moment of unexpected bite. Otherwise tender at heart and laugh-out-loud entertaining, the tale of Frederick's misadventures... will charm readers ages 8-12." Kirkus Reviews adds succinctly, "A fun coming-of-age romp!"

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