As proud Florida transplants, and the even prouder parents of a Florida native, we take great satisfaction in the fact that our first-grader can imitate the alarm call of a blue jay, spot a thunderhead on the horizon, and tell you the best way to avoid being eaten by an alligator. He’s even written a nifty illustrated guide to “Surviving the Florida Wilderness.”
Nevertheless, I don’t think he’s quite ready for the ferocious Florida frontier of Watt Key’s spine-tingling young adult novel “Beast” (Square Fish, 2020). Or for its furry foe – none other than the notorious Florida Skunk Ape.
Adam Parks is a normal Florida teen on his way home from Walt Disney World when tragedy strikes. An accident sends his family’s car careening off the road near the mighty Suwannee River, and while he can’t remember much -– most importantly, what might have happened to his missing parents – he can recall the hulking, ape-like figure that strayed onto the blacktop right before the crash. You can imagine how the local law enforcement, not to say Adam’s classmates, respond to that little detail. Stung by ridicule and spurred on by grief, Adam embarks on a dangerous quest into the wilds of the Suwannee country to track down his parents and their cryptid killer.
Key, a prolific and much-celebrated author of young adult survival stories, paints a vivid picture of the wilderness of north central Florida: a land of labyrinthine cypress groves, crystal blue springs, and fish so huge and powerful they can leap right out of the water and knock you over (true story! – look up the Gulf sturgeon). Teens and tweens inclined toward adventure will love this action-packed journey, filled with moments of inspired wildcraft problem-solving, and tinted with the moody, malodorous shadow of the “bigfoots” that haunt these woods.
Adam’s quest to find his parents works on a psychological level, too. Anyone who has ever grieved a loved one will recognize the utter bewilderment and the search for understanding that drives Adam forward. We all find our closure in our own ways; Adam’s way, as it turns out, involves a bizarre ritual conducted by skunk apes and making friends with Levy County’s most quarrelsome old geezer. But it’s emotionally satisfying all the same – and no weirder than some other things I’ve seen at funerals.
So, whether you’ve got a crypto-curious naturalist, a young trekker, or going-through-a-thing teen, “Beast” is a fun and fulfilling tale for the young reader in your life.
Maybe get ‘em through elementary school first.