Project Jackalope by Emily Ecton, 253 pp, RL 5

Project Jackalope by Emily Ecton is one of those books that fills a very important, once over looked niche in the world middle-grade kid's books. Although a different beast from Project Jackalope, Jeff Kinney and his Wimpy Kid books have made writing humorous books about boys who are not orphaned wizards popular again. The awesome Tom Angleberger exploded the field with his very funny, thoughtful and occasionally absurd books that are great for boys (and, of course, girls.) Gordon Korman and his Swindle quartet of books and Jack D Ferraiolo and his hilarious, thoughtful action filled books are also making for some fantastic reading for boys who don't like to read sports or fantasy themed books. Add to this list, Emily Ecton and her new book, Project Jackalope. Ecton takes a nutty professor-type with a day job at the city zoo and a poor understanding of chat rooms, a single-minded genius neighbor and fellow classmate who may be willing to take unethical steps in the name of science and a relatively mild mannered (and admittedly not too observant or sharp) narrator and shakes them up to create the catalyst for the chain of events  that unravels in  Project Jackalope.

Jeremy sometimes runs errands for his neighbor, Professor Twitchett, picking up things from the drug store like hemorrhoid cream and cotton balls while avoiding Agatha, brainiac, loudmouth and social pariah at school and in their apartment building. Agatha, once a partner of of Professor Twichett's in his latest experiment, has been banned from his lab. When Jeremy gets a cryptic note from Professor Twitchett that expressly warns him from going to Agatha for help, he quickly realizes that she is the only person he can turn to for help after finding a jackalope peering up at him from under the dirty drawers and gym clothes in his hamper. Jeremy goes right to Wikipedia for information about this creature and learns that they drink whiskey, can mimic voices, are shy and are also ruthless killers. Shaken by this news, Jeremy says, "Wikipedia doesn't lie, right?" Ecton makes some very funny jokes at the expense of Wikipedia throughout the book, and cranks out lots of other laughs as well. Than makes sense, after all, as Ecton is the producer of the hilarious news-quiz program on NPR, Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me.

Jeremy is a fine narrator and will ensure boys are comfortable with this book, but Agatha is the star and hero in my eyes. Besides being driven, super smart and the owner of a cranky and occasionally vicious rabbit named Hortense (DNA donor for the jackalope that Jeremy names Max) Agatha has a Dora the Explorer suitcase on wheels, her own credit card and, best of all, a plan. My favorite part of Project Jackalope comes when Agatha and Jeremy go on the run in disguise and book a room in the fanciest hotel in town - especially the part with Max and the minibar... Ecton keeps the action on edge throughout the book by casting suspicion on all the characters, meaning Jeremy never really knows who he can trust, even Agatha. Then, there are the unpredictable suits from DARPA with flashlights that can make you vomit and relentless tracking abilities. However, Jeremy and Agatha keep Max hidden from everyone and thus keep everyone guessing. The climax comes at the school science fair where Agatha puts her braniac reputation on the line in an effort to save Max from a life in a lab. Jeremy presents his replica of the solar system made from styrofoam balls, including Pluto, at his father's insistence. Dewey Childress presents his project, "Watch Rats Get Hopped Up on Sugar Water" and Brendan Weeks shows off "Harnessing the Power of Hermit Crabs." However, Agatha's science fair nemesis, Carter Oliver, saves the day (for Max, anyway) by drawing attention away from Agatha's project (Hortense with pipe cleaner antlers and Agatha's real notes about how to make a hybrid species) just as things are about to go wrong with his project - an invisibility shield for his goldfish. Carter's project attracts the attention of the DARPA suits and his is whisked of to their headquarters to work for the government, taking the heat off of Jeremy and Agatha. Agatha also gets some special attention from from Mrs Marlowe, the science teacher who hooks Agatha up with some super scholarships.

And Max? Jeremy and Agatha "hide" him in her room with Hortense, his "mother." Aided by Hortense's orneriness, Jeremy explains Max's appearance (after he has shed his antlers) by saying that they told Agatha's mother that "Hortense had spontaneously reproduced, and her mom actually bought it. I know, it makes no sense, but you have to hear Agatha explain it. She made it sound cool and believable, like spontaneous human combustion." Just like Emily Ecton makes jackalopes seem cool and believable!

** Be sure to check out the Author's Note (You Mean It's Real?) where Ecton reveals some of the strange but true aspects of Project Jackalope and explains a little bit about what DARPA does.

Readers who enjoyed Project Jackalope will definitely like Stuart Gibbs' Spy School.

Source: Review Copy from Publisher

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