The Fantastic Family Whipple by Matthew Ward, 368 pp, RL 4
The Fantastic Family Whipple is the debut novel by Matthew Ward, with a perfectly matched cover illustration by James Gilleard. The Fantastic Family Whipple falls into a genre I might call fantastic, rather than fantasy. Other books I would categorize under this label might be Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events and Trenton Lee Stewart's series of books that begins with The Mysterious Benedict Society. While there are no dragons, unicorns, wizards or portals to other dimensions and worlds in these stories, the events and characters in these stories are beyond realistic. While he did employ a bit of magic in his books from time to time, I think that Roald Dahl could be considered the progenitor of this vein of fantastical fiction, and I definitely see traces of his kind of humor coming through in other books that fall into this category. The world that Matthew Ward creates in The Fantastic Family Whipple is one that has an old fashioned, turn of the (19th) century feel to it that is matched by a toungue-in-cheek seriousness that makes it that much more amusing.
At the center of this tremendous story that is dominated by one enormous family is the eleven-year-old Arthur Whipple, the one Whipple who, from the day he was born, has been continually failing to break records the way the rest of his remarkable family does. As the novel begins, the reader learns that Arthur was so eager to join his record breaking family that he arrived earlier than expected, on February 29th at 11:34 pm, rather than on March 1, the day that every other member of the Whipple family shared as a birthday. Things don't get much better for Arthur from there on out. His family is so regimentally organized and dedicated to to breaking records that every minute of their lives revolves around it and the grounds of their estate are covered with props and other accoutrements that allow the family to practice at all times. In fact, Mr. Melvyn McCleary, the world record certifier from the Grazelby's Guide to World Records and Fantastic Feats found himself on the grounds of the Whipple's estate so often that he ended up a virtual family member, even being called Uncle Melvyn by the children. Because of Arthur's repeated failures and the family's dedication to keeping track of everything, Mr. Whipple has taken to charting Arthur's "failure quotient" which is determined by:
dividing the number of target units in a given world record attempt by the number of actual units achieved. For example, if Arthur needed to crush forty-four raw eggs with his elbow to break the record for Most Raw Eggs Crushed By an Elbow in Fifteen Seconds, but he only managed to crush eleven raw eggs, he would be given a failure quotient of four (because of course, forty-four divided by eleven equals four).
This should give you a good taste of the ridiculous nature of the records being challenged as well as the serious nature with which the Whipple family takes them on and, in fact, the serious nature with which everyone else in this world goes about admiring and respecting these records and the athletes and intellects who break them. You may pause to wonder about schooling for the Whipple children, but it seems that they are all preternaturally brilliant and can pursue interest ranging from medicine to painting to all things nautical. Of course, the Whipple children also are known for eating the most hot dogs in a minute and wearing the most consecutive matching outfits with a teddy bear. Ward's storytelling style is as epic as the family at the center of his story and he meanders through their lives as he makes his way towards the trouble that will build to a climax.
Early on, Ward introduces Rita Goldwin, a non-record breaking member of an almost as winning record breaking family. The Goldwins have just moved into the estate next door and signed a sponsorship contract with The Amazing Ardmore Almanac of the Ridiculously Remarkable, a publication slightly less prestigious than the Grazelby's Guide. Rita and Arthur form a wary friendship that turns into a partnership as things begin to go drastically wrong for the Whipples, most likely at the hands of a saboteur. While Sammy the Spatula, the ex-con, Cockney accented family cook and a record holder in his own right, is set up to take the fall, Arthur is convinced of his innocence and goes against the family grain in his efforts to help clear his name. One thing that I especially appreciated about Ward's writing, despite the fact that their is an air of the absurd to The Fantastic Family Whipple is how he handled that inevitable scene that comes in all adventure and mystery stories for young readers, the moment when the main character should tell an adult what is going on and chooses not to. For some reason, I am hyper aware of this when I read middle grade novels and I find that this moment is most often glossed over. Ward explains Arhtur's reluctance and ultimate decision to keep what he has seen to himself when he remembers the "sting of his father's last reproach," and his continual failure in the eyes of his family. Instead, he decides to wait for more proof.
As you might expect in a story of this nature, the plot escalates, taking another turn of evens at the Unsafe Sports Showdown, then again on board the Whipple's glass-bottomed family frigate. At this point in the story, things really do turn from fantastical to absurd and older readers might find it hard to carry on with a willing suspension of disbelief. However, readers who have enjoyed the record-breaking world of the Whipples up to this point will want to see Arthur and Sammy through to the end, which, it turns out, is just the beginning. And, for those readers, Ward has included a very fun index at the end of the book that has "Selections from the World Records Archives" which are very funny to read.
More of James Gilleard's cover art from The Fantastic Family Whipple
Source: Review Copy