Oxbow Island Gang: Leap Frog
By Rae Chalmers, Maine Author Publishing (2023)
It’s April break from school and Berend Houtman—known to his family and friends as Bear—can’t wait to visit his grandmother, Sally Parker, on Peaks Island. He has to jump onto the ferry at the last minute—the first of many leaps in Oxbow Island Gang: Leap Frog.
Bear finds his best island friend Olivia Anaya on the boat and they discuss plans for the week off, which include looking for frogs (she’s a budding naturalist). The two are disturbed by the sight of ambulances at the dock and emergency fire boats on the water. What has happened, who is hurt?
Like the other three titles in Peaks Island resident Rae Chalmers’ Oxbow Gang series, all illustrated by fellow islander Jamie Hogan, the book spins a mystery related to an environmental issue, in this case the appearance of deformed frogs on Dump Road (a handy map at the beginning shows this landmark and others in the story). Like the other titles, Leap Frog highlights the can-do attitude of island kids.
Being 60-something, I recruited three of my grandchildren—Maria, 10, Serita, 9, and James, 6—to help me review the book. Begun in Charlottesville, Virg., and finished in Somesville, the book had several different readers, each revealing new clues, chapter by chapter.
In a post-reading interview, the girls chose Sally Parker, Bear’s grandmother, as their favorite character.
“I really like how she’s so determined and cheers everybody up,” said Serita. Maria added, “She thinks about everybody and is serious, but also cheerful and makes Bear feel better when he’s feeling nervous.” James leaned to Bear, in part because of his name.
Being 60-something, I recruited three of my grandchildren—Maria, 10, Serita, 9, and James, 6—to help me review the book.
None of the kids knew the answer to “who done it” till the end, although they had inklings that whoever owned Bug-Out Farm, a peculiar property tucked away in the woods, might be the villain. The need to solve the mystery kept them engaged.
Favorite scenes included several related to this hideaway and its surveillance cameras, which swivel to follow the motion of intruders. In one, Dr. May Silva, a biologist who comes to the island to test the water, decides to moon walk in front of the cameras. In another Bear and Olivia pretend to be stealing from the premises—a ploy that ends up helping them solve the case of the poisoned frogs.
All three young readers recognized the importance of the island setting. Serita and Maria noted that when an elderly lobsterman has a stroke, they can’t just get in an ambulance and go to the hospital. James felt the island was a good place for a hideout.
The book’s ending left them frustrated. They felt there could’ve been more information about the people behind Bug-Out Farm, “how they got their money, if they were smugglers or a gang, why they needed an escape place.” That said, Maria, Serita, and James enjoyed the swings of mood—from happy to sad, funny to scary—and the spirit of the kids who didn’t give up trying to help the frogs despite some naysayers.
For this reviewer of a certain age, several references to Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” (“Jeremiah was a bullfrog…”) brought a smile (and an earworm). I also appreciated the multi-generational nature of the story and its evocation of island life: going to Mooney’s Market to find out what’s happening, acknowledging that the community can be split by issues. Also well-wrought: the relationship of Bear and Olivia and the escapades of a couple of charming dogs. Chalmers knows how to tell a tale at once entertaining and intriguing with a message, to quote one of the grandkids, that encourages everyone “not to give up.”
More about Rae Chalmers is at raechalmers.com and about Jamie Hogan at jamiepeeps.com.
Carl Little lives on Mount Desert Island and relies on his grandkids to keep him honest and afloat.