Synopsis: Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt Fitzroy is a 12 year old heck raising wild child who find himself at the center of a mystery, a murder mystery. Henry, the hippopotamus, the mascot of the brand new adventure park FunJungle is dead. This jerk of a hippo is dead and none of the adults seem to care to ask why. Fitz joins forces with Summer McCraken, a fiesty girl with secrets of her own to solve the murder of a mascot and to find the dark secrets of the “happiest zoo on earth”
Belly Up is a noir-style detective thriller packaged in the clothes of a lark-filled Wimpy kid-style juvie novel. Belly Up is a darker book; more in line with the works of Elmore Leonard than Jeff Kinney. It’s dark, not so much in the classic sense of “adorable side-kick animal dies to teach the hero a lesson” typical of most ‘Death by Newbery’ novels but more in that animals die and the villain deliberately tries to kill the hero and his family more than once.
Despite my classification as dark, the book is never gloom and doom—though there are a few moments of worry from the hero due to circumstances. Stuart Gibbs employs a light touch in the mystery, seemingly influenced by another juvie author Carl Hiaasen. In many ways this feels similar to “Hoot,” and could be recommended as such. Hero Teddy Fitzroy is not weighed down by the gravity of the mystery around him but empowered. The comic elements are strong, with Henry the Hippo being just enough of a jerk that his death comes across as unfortunate rather than tragic.
Overall I would suggest this book for 4th grade and up. The perilous elements—including the risk of deadly snake bite and a wild cat attack might be too intense for younger viewers. Additionally the resolution of the plot includes the mentioning of several animals being killed as a part of a smuggling plot, which could be upsetting to some readers. While having a male protagonist, the story would work well for either gender.