KidsPost Summer Book Club: ‘The Water Bears’

Abby McGanney Nolan

THE WASHINGTON POST – Newton Gomez has grown up on Murphy Island near the Oregon coast and knows it so well he could be a tour guide. That doesn’t mean he wants to live there anymore.

Newt has had enough of the (fictional) island’s oddities, such as the weird creature that supposedly lives in Gertrude Lake. Even more bothersome are his frequent nightmares about the bear attack he suffered a year ago. Newt is turning 13 years old as the book begins, and the school year is about to end. Newt thinks that if he can move in September to the mainland United States, where his grandmother, older brother and other relatives live, he can restart his life.

Murphy Island is a unique place, as Newt’s narration makes clear. Once a fancy resort featuring circus performers, musicians and candy-makers, it became an artist’s colony after World War I. Now it’s a family community where kids attend school in the old hotel and eat lunch in its huge, drained swimming pool. Newt says his family’s house, decorated to celebrate their Mexican heritage, “makes up for the 99 per cent of the island that isn’t Latinx”.

Murphy Island is also the kind of offbeat community that’s okay with a 13-year-old driving an old taco truck. He had wanted a new bicycle for his birthday, but instead his parents gave him this to get around. It proves useful when Newt finds a big wooden bear that’s been carved from a log; he and his best friend, Ethan, wonder if it might be magical in some way.

Throughout the story, Ethan tries to persuade Newt to join him in performing at the island’s annual festival. But it was right before last year’s event that Newt got mauled by a bear, and he keeps thinking about being seen as “the kid who almost died picking berries”.

Author Kim Baker packs a lot of questions into her engaging story. They range from whether the mysterious lake monster is real, to whether Newt is so stressed out that he may be imagining certain events and people. But Newt is surrounded with a loving family and good friends, and he seems well equipped to face all kinds of unknowns.