Uma Gnudersonn has a head full of questions: How can I save my home from being sold? Will my dad ever start talking again? And how do alpacas get drunk? But since her mum died, Uma's life has been short on answers. Then she finds a genius artificial intelligence called Athena who knows everything. Suddenly Uma has the answer to any question she can imagine - from the capital of Mozambique to the colour of her headteacher's underpants - and she's going to use them to save her home and her father.
I received a proof copy of Uma and the Answer to Absolutely Everything from Puffin Books in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
When I found out Sam Copeland was writing a new children's book I could hardly contain my excitement. Sam is one of the biggest talents in middle grade fiction and his Charlie Changes Into A Chicken series has become one of my staple recommendations as a children's bookseller. I was lucky enough to accompany Sam on some of his school visits last year (back in the good old days before COVID) and I can honestly say I've never heard anything as loud as an assembly hall filled with 300+ kids laughing so hard that the room was probably at least 23% pee. His World Cup of Disgusting Animals may have left me mentally scarred (I still have nightmares about that blobfish) but it was worth it getting to see an author captivate a room of children so easily and bring reading to life so vividly. Needless to say, when I found out he was working on Uma and the Answer to Absolutely Everything, I had pretty high expectations.
What's it about?
Uma and the Answer to Absolutely Everything is about a 10 year old girl called Uma Gnudersonn who lives with her father. Since her mother passed away a couple of years ago, life in the Gnudersonn household has become pretty miserable. Uma misses her mum dearly, and her dad... well he's just stopped talking. In fact, the only thing he seems to care about is his train set, which is quickly taking over the entire house. With so many questions and no one to answer them, Uma doesn't know what to do. Until she accidentally stumbles across Athena - the greatest Artificial Intelligence assistant in the world. Suddenly she has the answer to every question she's ever wanted to ask in the palm of her hand (or, more accurately, in her ear), but before she gets the chance to ask anything, she finds herself being pursued by Athena's wicked creator who will stop at nothing to get her back. Can Uma save Athena from the clutches of the evil Stella Daw? And will she finally find the answers she's been looking for?
Knowing Your Audience
Children's authors face the unique problem of having to write a book that will appeal to two very different readerships. First there are the children. And in case you didn't know, children can be pretty brutal. If you haven't hooked them in two sentences, you've failed. Game over. Back to Minecraft. Or Roblox... or whatever other weird things kids do on their iPads instead of reading. Then there's the parents / teachers / librarians. Even if you're somehow able to capture a child's attention and convince them to keep reading beyond two sentences, it counts for nothing if you can't win over the adults. After all, they're the ones buying the books; without them, you're going to really struggle to get your book into children's hands. The problem is, kids love adventure, excitement and fun, and adults... well adults are boring old farts. And one thing I love about Sam Copeland? He doesn't write for boring old farts.*
*Please note: that is not to say this book does not feature farts. This book features many, many farts. So many farts.
Sam has that rare talent of being able to instinctively write books that children will love. If I hadn't met him in person, I'd be sure that Sam Copeland is actually two children stood on top of each other concealed under a trench coat, simply pretending to be an adult so they can get their books published. Because no adult is that funny.
"She had the face of a woman who would eat pizza with a knife and fork."
Reading Uma and the Answer to Absolutely Everything reminded me of the books I loved when I was a kid - Captain Underpants, Diary of a Wimpy Kid; the books that may not go down in history as literary classics, but will be remembered as the books that inspired a generation of kids to read when nothing else could. And surely that's the greatest accolade of all.
All the Key Ingredients of a Perfect Children's Book
From rampaging drunk alpacas to Super-Orangey Organgutan Bumslaps (which I cannot find in Tesco ANYWHERE!), Uma and the Answer to Absolutely Everything is brimming with silly comedy that will have children in stitches and adults tssk-ing disapprovingly. (That's how you know it's the best kind of funny). There's an infectious energy to this book that makes it impossible to put down and I can just tell that kids are going to be obsessed as soon as they get their hands on it. I know many parents are struggling to engage their kids with reading at the moment with schools being closed and routines being disrupted - if this is you, I can't recommend Uma enough. Aside from the madcap comedy, there's also a gripping mystery at the heart of the story surrounding a hidden treasure, one of the best supporting characters in a children's book I've ever come across, and a truly despicable villain.
"Alpacas are a bit like llamas but better. And, just to warn you, there’s a lot of alpacas in this book. In fact, there are probably more alpacas in this book than in any other book ever. So if you don’t like alpacas, then this book probably isn’t for you. And if you don’t like alpacas, you should probably take a long, hard look at yourself because alpacas are awesome."
And beneath all the silliness, there's also a really touching story about sadness, grief and coping with loss. Uma's dad hasn't handled the death of his wife brilliantly and he struggles to communicate with his daughter. And with no one to talk to, Uma's had to bottle up all of her emotions and doesn't know how to express them. With her Artificial Intelligence Athena's help, she's able to learn how to navigate her grief and rebuild her relationship with her dad. This was one of my favourite aspects of Uma and the Answer to Absolutely Everything and it reminded me a little of Maz Evans's Who Let The Gods Out series, which also uses humour as a way of easing into tricky conversations about what can sometimes be pretty scary subjects for children to talk about. The ending got me way more than I expected and I'm not ashamed to admit that I may have shed a tear!
I also want to say a quick thank you for the gift that is Alan Alan. He's one of my new favourite children's characters ever and I can't tell you how much it meant to me seeing him and his two dads in a family unit so full of support and happiness. That kind of soft, gentle representation isn't seen very often in middle grade novels and it made my heart burst with joy.
"I never know when my poos are going to happen. Sometimes I can go three times in a day. Alan Alan says he only poos once a week, but I don't believe him. Is that even possible? Anyway, that's not an important detail for the story and I should probably remember to edit this bit out."
I wasn't sure Sam Copeland was going to be able to write anything as brilliant as Charlie Changes Into A Chicken, but as usual I was proven wrong. Uma and the Answer to Absolutely Everything is one of those rare books that captures the very essence of what being a child is all about and Sam writes with wit and warmth in a way that's guaranteed to hook any reader. Perfect for fans of Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants, Maz Evans's Who Let the Gods Out, and Simon James Green's The Life of Riley, Uma and the Answer to Absolutely Everything is the ideal book for developing readers, and perfect for kids looking to move from the KS1 age range into something a little more challenging. Sarah Horne's illustrations were spot-on as always and I can't wait to see what the two of them will do next!
Have you read any of Sam Copeland's books? Got any other funny recommendations for younger readers? Let me know in the comments below!