Gates, S.P. The Monster in the Mudball
September 2013, Tu Books
ARC received from the publisher
When Jin's elderly neighbor, Madalitso, falls and hurts herself, Jin is very concerned, but he is also very surprised when a mudball with feet runs away from Madalitso's house. He tries to follow it, and ends up at the river, where he sees the mudball strangle small animals with its feet! Luckily, an inspector from the Risk Assessment Agency for Ancient Artifacts (RAAAA), Mizz Z, shows up asking about the mudball. Mizz Z tells Jin that the creature is really Zilombo, a mixture of beasts from her village in Malawi. Many years ago, after Zilombo took Mizz Z's brother, her father managed to cut off the creature's nails, which made it go into dormancy in a mudball, which he mailed to England to Madalitso, who had kept the mudball safe and dry for 20 years. Now that Zilombo is free, she is gaining power and very interested in Smiler, whom she captures. Jin follows her through Oozeburn's sewers, and manages to get Smiler back when Mizz Z puts the creature to sleep with a lullaby. They repair to Jin's grandparent's apartment, but Zilombo wants Smiler back. Jin's older sister Frankie helps fight the monster, which has developed a power to shock people. After several attempts to try to disable Zilombo (Mizz Z doesn't want to kill her because "She is what she is. We must learn to live with such wild creatures, as we do with lions or snakes." [page 122 of ARC]), the group is convinced that she is gone, and Mizz Z moves on to her next assignment.
Strengths: I think it's great that Lee and Low has an imprint specifically for multicultural fantasy books. Not only is Jin half Chinese (his grandparents make dragons for dragon dances), but the creature is from Malawi, as well as Mizz Z. This gives a twist that most fantasy books lack. There are lots of good gross descriptions of Zilombo, a fair amount of action and suspense, and an opportunity for Jin to save the day.
Weaknesses: It would have been more interesting if they had dispatched Zilombo as just part of Mizz Z's inspections, so we could have met other creatures. Spending the entire book fighting one creature got a bit boring. There were also some interesting sub-stories that were mentioned and then ignored-- the grandparents are going to lose their apartment, Jin suffers from "clumsy child syndrome" which could have been used to good effect, and we don't really find out much about Madalitso. I'm not sure that my middle schoolers would be interested in this, but perhaps elementary school students would enjoy it. Middle school students might root for Zilombo to go ahead and eat a baby brother!