January 16, 2020


Written by Kenneth Oppel
HarperCollins Canada
312 pp.
Ages 10-14
February 2020

Many Canadians would recognize Salt Spring Island as a popular tourist destination off the coast of British Columbia. But what's happening on this Gulf Island in Kenneth Oppel's latest middle grade novel, Bloom, would have most running away. Unfortunately, there will be nowhere safe to run.

All teens have their angst but Anaya, Petra and Seth have challenges that are unique. Anaya Riggs may have to deal with acne and asthma but she also lives with severe allergies to just about everything: gluten, dairy, eggs, smoke, dust, pollen, etc. Her former friend and all-around popular girl Petra is allergic to water and cannot allow it to contact her skin without developing a burning rash or hives. New kid Seth Robertson, who has been moved from foster home to foster home, is now living with an elderly couple Mr. and Mrs. Antos on their farm and always wears long sleeves to hide the scars that track up and down both arms. 

Then a hard rain comes down for several days and changes everything. Anaya's allergies improve and her acne clears up. Petra can wash with this rainwater–she collects as much as she can–without any reaction. And a strange black grass begins to grow just about everywhere around the world and at an alarming rate.
Pretty much all anyone talked about now was the black grass. How it was crowding out crops, how nothing killed it. You couldn't go on your phone or turn on the TV without people talking about how it was showing up everywhere, and what was this stuff, anyway? (pg. 50)
Attempts to eradicate the grass by mowing or chainsawing it or applying herbicides or fire are futile or dangerous. Anaya's father, a botanist at the Ministry of Agriculture's experimental farm, is working hard to identify the plant, including those germinated in the water Petra has collected, and even Anaya gets involved collecting soil from the school yard, one of the few sites without the black grass. Soon enough, though, the schoolyard becomes a minefield of pit-plants that swallow prey, whether it be a deer or humans. Oddly, Petra, Anaya and Seth are not affected by the pit-plants' acidic walls or tranquilizing gas emissions.

As Mr. Riggs and a research associate head out to the eco-reserve on Cordova Island where the black grass appears to be dying, the three teens are taken by Dr. Stephanie Weber, a scientist with CSIS, to a military base in Vancouver in the hopes of learning what makes them special and possibly developing a vaccine. But what is discovered about the teens is much scarier than anyone ever anticipated.

The word "bloom" suggests something unhurried and beautiful and captivating. The plants in Bloom are nothing like that. They are aggressively growing, violent in their attacks and devastating in their effects. Worse yet, the last line in the book is a harbinger that more, perhaps even worse, is still to come in the next books in The Overthrow series. (Book 2 in the series, Hatch, is set for a fall 2020 release while we'll have to wait until the summer of 2021 for the final book, Thrive.) Bloom is thrilling and scary, a story with all the hallmarks of an edge-of-your-seat cliff-hanger–although you'd more likely be hanging by vines above a lake rife with machine-gun water lilies–blending a survival tale with an action-adventure involving clashes with dangerous life-forms. 

Though Anaya, Petra and Seth, as well as the parents, social workers, and military, carry the story forward, Kenneth Oppel's plot steals the story. It's bizarre, it's compelling and you can't read fast enough to learn what is happening. Kenneth Oppel may resolve Bloom to readers' satisfaction–we do learn what the plants are and how the teens are different–but there's obviously so much more to their story. I'm looking forward to an even more twisted plot when we revisit the kids and the source of Bloom's plants in Hatch and Thrive.

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