I also didn’t expect this kind of visual design from a book aimed squarely at middle school kids. It’s seriously delightful, a clever mix of mid-century modern with the more expected kids’ doodles on graph paper. The illustrations throughout are entirely suited to the text, and even do readers the favor of repeating at key points so that we don’t have to search back through the book for the relevant graphics. While Luke Lucas is credited for many of the interior illustrations, the overall concept and design was masterminded by Peter Bakalian himself: kudos thus to him for this excellently constructed package!
The accompanying story is silly and gross enough to appeal to middle schoolers while also containing that slight frisson of real-world danger that appeals to readers of all ages. Our narrator, codenamed Popcorn, is a YouT– I’m sorry, ViewTuber whose obsession with junk food is at direct odds with his parents’ ownership of a health food store. One day in the kitchen, he accidentally rips the cover of a cookbook, revealing a strange manual underneath. Unable to believe what he’s seeing, he calls an emergency meeting of his best friends in order to relate what he’s discovered, as well as what happened immediately after.
You see, F.A.R.T is the acronym for Families Against Rotten Teens, and they claim to be able to help any parent turn their snotty pre-adolescent into a model child. An aghast Popcorn paged through the book, discovering not only that it was rigged to blow if subject to unauthorized removal, but also that F.A.R.T employs a mysterious clean up crew to hide all traces of their existence. His friends (codenamed Apricot, Banana and Crabapple) are various shades of skeptical given his wild story and utter lack of proof. As they start to investigate, however, weird and weirder things keep happening. If F.A.R.T doesn’t actually exist, as the entire world seems intent on telling them, then why do things and people keep vanishing after the kids look into them? And what will happen when one of the kids themselves seems to disappear into thin air?
This was an engaging, often humorous, sometimes sinister middle-grade novel that expertly toes the line between goofy and serious. I’m almost afraid to give it to my eldest kid for fear he’ll start thinking that F.A.R.T and their parental brainwashing techniques are real, so convincingly is the book written. Then again, I’m pretty sure he knows I’m too much of a nonconformist myself to expect model behavior from him… or is that just part of my evil plan? (Not a great plan if his grades are any indicator, honestly.)
But that’s enough dissing my poor kid for one review, lol. This book is a great addition to the library of anyone with an interest in being their own person, as well as in middle-grade investigative shenanigans. I’m looking forward to how the rest of the series (projected, I believe, to cover at least three books) pans out.
F.A.R.T.: Top Secret! No Kids Allowed! by Peter Bakalian was published May 3 2022 and is available from all good booksellers, including