Playing in a gigantic puzzle competition with a sliver of hope for the title of champion — you’ll be right there with Gil as he does just that in one of my favorite books, The Gollywhopper Games, his compelling quest aided by Jody Feldman’s snappy voice and her intelligent brainteasers.
Gil’s family has been shunned from the community of Orchard Valley ever since his father, Charles Goodson, was falsely accused of embezzling from the Golly Toy and Game Company. When the worldwide toy company announces a spectacular competition called the Gollywhopper Games to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, Gil sees winning the money from first place as an opportunity to help his family afford moving. However, if he wants that, he has to overcome puzzles that are just as tough as the physical stunts and mediate discordant teammates, all while pushing away the fact that the whole event will be broadcast on nationwide TV.
The first page pulls you into the story with Gil hurrying home after mowing the neighbor’s lawn, grabbing his stuff, and snagging a place in the long line circling around University Stadium, where the Gollywhopper Games will officially begin. Then there’s a chapter-long flashback that shows the rumors and distrust circulating around Gil at school during his father’s trial and the lingering suspicion after he’s found innocent. The end of the flashback — “You win, and we’ll move,” Charles tells Gil, referring to the Gollywhopper Games — is really the driving force of the book, the point when we start to understand what impels Gil through such an arduous journey.
Everything about the Games is infused with a creative and cheeky wackiness, something that stands beside the brands of Willy Wonka or Mr. Lemoncello, yet it maintains its own singular Golly-ness. This is especially apparent inside the company headquarters, where the majority of the Games takes place and the competitors bash piñatas of witches and cats, piece together the parts of a hugely oversized baby doll, dig up swords from a tropical paradise, and bolt past random objects like a pink Cadillac and a live hippo and a pair of large dice. Out of all the physical stunts my favorite is the Rainbow Maze. The interactive puzzles add an extra touch of wittiness and are fun to take a crack at solving. I particularly appreciate the illustrations scattered throughout the book, rich with artistry thanks to Victoria Jamieson’s hand-drawn pencil style.
The kids themselves are the quintessential example of the turbulent team trope, designed with disparate personalities and ideas, setting the foundation for tension and head-bumping to progress the plot. Gil and Lavinia Plodder, a stiff intellectual, are the most focused kids and the most capable of settling down quibbles between Rocky Titus, an impulsive, cheating athlete prone to going berserk over the fear of losing; Bianca LaBlanc, a bubbly, scatterbrained aspiring actress/model; and Thorn Dewitt-Formey, a wealthy boy who seems to find all the puzzles and stunts tedious in spite of his initial determination in entering the Games. They try to live up to the exaggerated characterizations of the kids in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, although the dialogue they swap while hammering away at the puzzles can take such a sharp turn into acidic belligerence that it can distract you from the Games.
The stream-of-consciousness narrative is an effective way to give us the most insight on Gil’s character. He wants to forget the past and move forward, but having Rocky on his team, a guy who bullied him at school and called him a son of a crook, makes that almost impossible. These pressures are skillfully woven into the third-person POV, building up over the Games to present Gil as a flawed protagonist for whom we can root. The narrative can also be effective to maintain the fast pacing, although the reader may have to catch up with it whenever it rushes headlong into the Games.
Even after the resonant ending there’s an extra puzzle to solve, so take the time to savor that. And if you’re left hungry for more Gollywhopper action, look no further than the next two books, The New Champion and Friend Or Foe.
Windup score: 95/100