Looking Up by Stephan Pastis

Oh nooooo, this book gutted me at a time when I am already feeling down, ow, not okay! The biggest bummer is that I can’t tell you why because that would give away the tremendous plot, and frankly everyone of any age deserves to experience that for themselves.

So here’s the story I can tell you. Saint is a lonely young girl who doesn’t have a lot of friends because she is, objectively, an oddball. She’s that kid at parties who rescues pinatas and refuses to pin a tail on a donkey, no matter how fake, and won’t slice into a cake with a gnome on it because she protects everything with a face. She collects toy knights and has a life partner in the form of a painted turtle. Her relationship with her mother is contentious because, according to her, Mom never keeps promises. She’s really hoping, tho, that Mom will actually honor one to take her to her favorite toy store in a week.

But when that toy store is sold and demolished before Saint gets a chance to go again, her disappointment turns into action. She’s tired of all these gentrifiers coming into her town and buying up properties and getting rid of all the stores and people she knows and loves, and darned if she isn’t going to do something about it! With the help of the round-faced boy across the street, Daniel “Chance” McGibbons, she embarks on a plan to drive away change and save what’s left of her hometown.

When the biggest plot twist (of several) was revealed, y’all, it felt like I’d been hit in the chest with a brick. I ached for Saint in a way I can’t remember feeling for any protagonist of an (ostensibly) kid’s book. And while this novel is slow-going at first, the momentum builds till you’re breathless and ready to cling only to the wisdom that weird old Mrs Trifaldi tells young Saint about living in the past.

In many ways, Looking Up reminds me of Diana Wynne Jones’ Time Of The Ghost, one of my all-time favorite books. The plots share few similarities, but the themes are surprisingly mature, with the concept of expectations of the future a strong theme. So while this is ostensibly a book aimed at children, it might not land with that age group upon a first read, as TotG didn’t for me. Kids (and adults) who’ve been through the same stuff as Saint tho will feel this story hard.

Stephan Pastis is more well-known for his acerbic syndicated comic Pearls Before Swine. Looking Up is a departure, but one that is tender, moving and worthwhile. I’m only sad I didn’t finish it in time to go see him when he swung through town on his book tour.

Looking Up by Stephan Pastis was published October 10 2023 by Aladdin and is available from all good booksellers, including

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