Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts by Esta Spalding; illustrated by Sydney Smith

For many years the four Fitzgerald-Trout children — Kim, Kimo, Pippa, and Toby — lived happily in the little green car in the parking lot beside the beach. But all that came to an end one Saturday when the sun rose over the ocean and its light shone through the windshield of the car where the Fitzgerald-Trout children had slept very badly. Badly enough to change everything.

So opens 2017/2018 Red Cedar Fiction nominee Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts by Esta Spalding and illustrated by Sydney Smith, a story of family (the four siblings, no real parents) and of home (a car and an impossible dream).

Every so often a book is compared to The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts is the first that spontaneously brought that book to mind. The resemblance is a matter of narrative voice; that balance of carefree adventure with real consequences, the half-believing possibility that this could be real; the inventiveness and practicality of our protagonists, who take themselves in hand, responsibilities and all; and a certain night spent indoors where neither child nor adult is supposed to be at that time of day.

One of the great delights of this book is the family dynamics. By which I mean largely the sibling dynamics; parents do not figure largely in Kim, Kimo, Pippa, and Toby’s lives. Their mothers are terrible (and mostly absent), and their fathers are terrible (and entirely absent). Our four have their own opinions on the adults in their lives, and also on each other and their roles in the family.

Kim, Kimo, Pippa, and Toby have dominant characteristics, which are supported by underlying traits and desires, all of which distinguish the children from each other at the same time as their understanding of each other’s natures and their family-ness binds them together.

Which brings us to the construction of this family, because they are most definitely a family of siblings, no other relatives necessary.

After Dr. Fitzgerald left, the children settled into life as a happy family of four. Of course, as happens in some families, not all of them were actually related. (29)

The story plays with notions of family: Kim and Pippa, who share the same parents (both parents) are the most opposite in nature – witness their different taste in books – while Kim and Kimo, who are not related at all, think of themselves as twins. Of course, in no family do sibling relationships remain static, and the Fitzgerald-Trouts have more pressures pushing and pulling them than most. I particularly liked how, without calling the fact that they are family into question, all four siblings change and are changed by how their siblings are changing and reacting to these changes. (Sorry you had to read that sentence.) Parental neglect and the early burden of raising themselves are expressed — Pippa spits out particularly pertinent criticisms at one parent; at the same time, the narrative tone softens the harshness of their situation. You trust that these four can look after themselves better for the absence of parental “oversight”, and, along with remarkable resilience, the four are given advantages that make their life together borderline plausible. Such as the fact that they live on a tropical island with abundant fish, sweet wild fruit, and a friendly laundromat owner named Mr. Knuckles.

The inside illustrations scattered here and there, like snapshots in a journal, share the narrative’s bold liveliness. Recommended.