Divorce is tough for any kid. But when - like Vi's parents - your mum is ex-secret service and your dad is a retired bad guy, 'till death do us part' takes on a whole new meaning. And with her parents' focus on each other, the real super-villains are having a field day. To save her family - and the world - from evil domination, Vi must turn spy...
As a children's bookseller there are a handful of authors that I always turn to when providing book recommendations. These are the books that are tried and tested, the books I feel so passionate about - and so confident in - that I know any child will love them, regardless of whether they're an emerging reader still finding their feet, or an avid reader who lives and breathes books. Maz Evans is one of those authors, and I've lost count of how many kids I've recruited into the GodsSquad who, once they started reading Who Let The Gods Out?, couldn't stop until they'd devoured the entire series. So when I found out Maz was working on a BRAND NEW series I screamed with excitement and then went to do a nervous poo - because, let's face it, she had some pretty big shoes (winged sandals?) to fill. But relax, dear reader. You can let out that breath you didn't know you were holding. Because this is Maz Evans and she absolutely nailed it.
What's it about?
Vi Spy: Licence to Chill is the first in a brand new series centred around young spy wannabe Valentine (Vi) Day who is determined to follow in her mother's footsteps and become a super sleuth. But that's a life Easter Day put behind her eleven years ago and she'll do whatever it takes to protect her daughter from the dangerous world of espionage. And it all seems to be going to plan - until Vi's supervillain father turns up and demands to see his daughter. Robert claims to have turned over a new leaf (and he has the badge to prove it!) but Easter's not so sure, and when a sinister plot is uncovered and an evil overlord makes a reappearance, Vi needs to decide whether she can truly trust her father. It seems like she's finally found her mission... but could it cost her her family?
Vampires, Piranhas and Foot Stench, oh my!
Maz Evans is the Queen of Middle Grade Comedy and having had the privilege of seeing her in action at school events, I can tell you first-hand that this woman is hilarious. And like the Who Let The Gods Out series, Vi Spy is bursting with comedy that will have kids peeing themselves with laughter. It really is that funny. For me, reading Vi Spy felt like being in a sweet shop with one of those giant pick'n'mix cups that you can fill to the top - just as long as you can get the lid on. And I wanted everything. Scoops of comedy, a dollop of mystery, a dash of gadgets and explosives, and - of course - a sprinkle of emotion. This book has it all, and boy was I feeling the sugar rush.
"There were two disasters Vi needed to prevent: one, a room full of exploding parents; two, a room full of middle-aged people dancing in spandex. Both were potentially tragic."
One of my favourite things about this book was the cast of supporting characters. There's poor old Giuseppe, proprietor of the villainous Café Furfante who serves food while fending off henchmen with pizza cutters and is constantly on the lookout for assassination attempts (did someone order a stick of dynamite with their ice cream sundae?). Then there's the Ex-Villain Improvement League support group, featuring repentant villains like Dimitri the woke vampire, Auguste the trigger-happy clown who just can't seem to stop killing off his sponsors, and Siren the beautiful femme fatale with some serious hygiene issues. It's such a colourful bunch of characters and they make a brilliant ensemble. The characters definitely make this book and I couldn't get enough of all of the bonkers personas popping up all over, though I must admit my personal favourite has got to be Fifty-Fifty, the spy divorce mediator who is essentially a combination of Edna Mode and Effie Trinket - and a total style icon.
Vi Spy is bursting with adventure, chaos and a whole lot of madcap comedy, but it's also incredibly tender and full of heart. Vi's parents are going through an emotionally-charged divorce and her soon-to-be-stepbrother Russell knows all too well how painful a family separation can be. It's rare to find a children's book that tackles the subject of divorce head-on (most middle grade fiction features either the nuclear happy family or a single-parent household where the separation has already been dealt with) so I can't praise Maz Evans enough for writing a book that talks openly about divorce and helps kids understand that the situation they're going through is one that many families face.
One of the things I found so striking about Vi Spy was the way it put into words a lot of the feelings I had when I was a child and my parents separated. I'm lucky in the sense that my parents' separation was largely shielded from me; I was too young to really know exactly what was going on and my parents were (thankfully) mature enough to deal with it in a way that wouldn't cause me or my sister any upset. But even though they handled it well, their separation is something I had to learn to navigate without having the tools or words to really know how. I can't tell you how much I wish I'd had Vi Spy to read when I was a kid because it would have helped me understand my situation and realise that I wasn't going through this alone. As a kid I felt immense guilt over that fact I wasn't very close to my dad or his side of the family even though I desperately wanted to be. There were times when I wanted to see him but he was working night shifts and needed to sleep (though let's be real there were also a lot of times when he was just too busy watching the football.) Then there were times when he'd phone me and ask if I wanted to come over and I'd say no because I was too busy playing with super soakers outside with my friends. Learning to navigate a divorce means that kids are often put in situations where they feel like they're taking sides (even if the parents aren't meaning for that to happen) and the emotional burden can take a real toll. There's a scene in Vi Spy where Russell calls his mum and tells her about how popular he is at school and how well he's doing on the school football team. It's all lies, but he's so desperate to impress her and win her affection that he'll say anything to get her approval. When he asks her to come to his BlitzBot final and she makes an excuse to get out of it I was heartbroken for Russell because I know just how devastating it can be when a parent takes no interest in something you care about because they're not involved enough to know just how much it means to you. Divorce is messy for everyone involved but as Russell recognises, parents are often so caught up in their own emotions that they fail to recognise when their kids are hurting too (not least because they're so often putting on a brave face to try to make things easier for their grown-ups.)
"Divorcing parents don't care what you say," said Russell. "They only care about what they want to hear..."
Beneath all the fart jokes and foot fungus is a powerful message that I'm sure many young readers will take comfort in: time heals all wounds and things will get better. Characters like Vi and Russell have been on the sidelines of children's literature for far too long and I'm overjoyed to see them portrayed so lovingly in Vi Spy. There's a real sense of optimism by the end of the book and I love that the divorce, which initially is this huge dark cloud for Vi, becomes the catalyst for something wonderful: a new, larger family filled with even more people who love her unconditionally.
"We did it," said Vi proudly, looking at her patchwork family. Yes, they were weird. But when they worked together, they were actually pretty awesome."
Maz Evans proves she's still got it with this wonderful new series, filled with lovable characters and bursting with humour and heart. Funny books are the greatest tool in a children’s bookseller’s arsenal and I'm thrilled to have a new go-to recommendation to get kids hooked on books. Authors like Maz Evans, Sam Copeland, Pamela Butchart and Simon James Green are proof we're living in a golden age of children's comedy and my gosh how lucky these kids are to have such wonderful stories at their fingertips. Now I just have to wait patiently for Book #2 so I can find out what awaits Vi and Russell at Rimmington Hall and (hopefully) discover the identity of the evil Umbra!!! Don't keep me in suspense for too long, Maz!
Have you read any of Maz Evans's books? Have any other funny middle grade recommendations? Let me know in the comments!