Illustrated by Tomislav Tomić.
Published by Faber & Faber, 2021.
The Ocean Squid Explorers’ Club is the fourth instalment in this hugely popular fantasy adventure series by Alex Bell. This time we’re taken by submarine on an underwater adventure and it’s an exhilarating ride, full of edge-of-your-seat excitement. There’s a terrifying storm maiden, a giant sneezing jellyfish and an army of sea gremlins.
Villain Scarlett Sauvage, from the Phantom Atlas Society, is wreaking havoc. Also known as the Collector, Scarlett’s been stealing parts of the world (entire cities or islands) and locking them up in her private collection of snow globes. When she steals the Ocean Squid Explorers’ Club and locks it away in a snow globe, only one submarine escapes – the Blowfish.
Four 12-year olds are thrown together as its motley crew: siblings Jai and Genie, expelled explorer Max, and Ursula Jellyfin who’s half-mermaid, half-human. I loved these characters! Kraken-whisperer Genie was probably my favourite; I especially loved her kind heart and her incredible collection of eccentric hats.
The themes of friendship and bravery are central to the story. The children are wary of each other at the start but as they navigate their perilous adventure together they come to trust and depend on each other. I particularly loved the book’s powerful messages about acceptance and putting aside our prejudices and pre-conceived ideas. There’s also an important feminist angle to the story. As a result of Stella Starflake Pearl’s efforts (in previous books), all of the other explorers’ clubs are now accepting girls as members. It’s just the Ocean Squid Explorers Club that’s stuck in its outmoded ways and stubbornly sticking to the traditional rules of boys-only membership. There’s a push from some of the younger members (most notably Jai) for these rules to be changed and, for her part, Ursula is determined to join and become an explorer. The story also has STEM at its heart. Ursula is a highly skilled submarine engineer and Max is an innovative inventor.
Another striking aspect of the book is the wonderful descriptive detail. From the super-sticky bubblegum coral and the starfish disco, to the opulent underwater Jaffles Hotel and the futuristic city of Pacifica – the places and creatures have been depicted in such vivid detail. Children are going to love diving into the magical world of mermaids with their underwater agility and grace, the power to summon water horses, and their hairbrushes which make your hair grow while simultaneously threading it with tiny shells and pearls. Not forgetting the best ice-cream parlour ever! There’s a rainbow of different colours and flavours, multicoloured seahorse sprinkles and a white coral fountain pouring out a rich variety of sauces. And then there’s the submarine itself which is equipped with a skating rink, mini-cinema and saltwater swimming pool, not to mention the bathroom with a bath tub shaped like a giant clam shell, complete with a bubble bath menu which includes blueberry pancake or vanilla ice cream scents. There’s a fantastic new world in the ocean and it’s often breathtakingly beautiful. Tomislav Tomić’s incredible double-page illustrations add to this awe and wonder, bringing the underwater world even more vividly to life.
Unusually for middle-grade fiction, the children make some big mistakes. I thought this was a really interesting and important decision. All too often, child heroes seem to get everything right which is not only unrealistic but also contributes to unhealthy expectations.
I was surprised that all the loose ends weren’t tied up at the end. I definitely still had a couple of unanswered questions. The book is certainly left open for more adventures with the crew of the Blowfish and I, for one, will be on board.
Suitable for children aged 8+
Thank you to Faber & Faber for sending me this book to review.