In a lot of ways, I am nothing like Olive Cobin-Zang, the Chinese-American protagonist of Lisa Yee’s and Dan Santat’s new illustrated novel, The Misfits: A Royal Conundrum. After all, I was never sent to a mysterious boarding school, housed in a building that had once been a prison and located on a foggy island in the middle of the San Francisco bay! Nor was I ever recruited from said boarding school to be part of an elite and top secret group of young special agents (although, let’s be real, I really wish both those things had been part of my journey!)
And yet… in some important ways, I’m a lot like Olive. Although for very different reasons, like Olive’s, my parents were largely absent from my life when I was her age. And just like Olive, I spent much of my time in both elementary and middle school feeling left out and alone, while also desperately wishing that I had what it took to make friends and fit in. But here’s the thing, y’all… I suspect a lot of kids feel this way. And while these are heavy feelings, to be sure, finding ways to help kids carry and navigate them is exactly what the best middle grade authors and illustrators do - and certainly Newbery Honor winner Lisa Yee and Caldecott Medalist, Dan Santat are among the very best. To be clear, however, while I’m sure a lot of kids will relate to The Misfits' quirky cast of characters, I’m betting just as many will love the crazy adventures these lovable underdogs get into.
Twelve year old Olive Cobin-Zang is used to feeling invisible. Not only do her parents travel constantly and forget important things like her birthday, but the one person Olive truly relates to, her grandmother Mimi, has been gone for months - with no one being willing to tell Olive what happened her! Her aloof and distracted mom will only say, “She’s no longer with us,” which leaves Olive both confused and feeling more alone than ever. Things go from bad to worse when her parents abruptly announce that they’re going away (again!) on an extended business trip. And since Mimi isn’t around to look after and keep her company, Olive has been enrolled at the Reforming Arts School (RASCH): a boarding school with a unique and mysterious history.
Like all schools, the RASCH student body has its fair share of bullies and over achievers. However, RASCH’s unique academic approach gently celebrates kids whose unique skills might otherwise be over-looked and it is in this group that Olive, for the first time in her life, finds her people. What’s more, it’s when Olive and her new friends are recruited to be part of an elite group of young special agents, whose “mission includes ensuring the safety of the community, guarding the possessions of the citizens, and preventing civil disorder,” that The Misfits are born.
What follows is a fun, sometimes hilarious, caper in which The Misfit must work together to uncover the mystery behind a string of jewel heists and save their school from being closed by its patron, Dame Gloria - all while learning about found families and what it means to be a true friend.
That said, while I enjoyed this sweet book, the readers for whom it was written are going to love it even more. Not only does Yee’s storytelling work perfectly with Santat’s illustrations, but their decades long friendship shines on the page. Additionally, while readers will find humor and suspense in the adventures faced by The Misfits, even more will find comfort in the way these hijinks help them navigate the all too common feeling of being left out.
Bonus Content: Both Lisa Yee and Santat will join me for this month's Bookelicious Middle Grade Book Club! Registration for this event is FREE and there will be a recording, so reserve your spot today!
Publication: January 20, 2024
Audience: Olive and her friends are in the 7th grade. However, I think readers in grades 5+ will enjoy this book.