This novel, aimed at grades 3-7, is action-packed and exciting and full of kids taking on impossible challenges with perseverance and determination. WILDFIRE by Rodman Philbrick is about Sam and Delphy, two kids who get caught out in a terrifying and raging wildfire while they are attending summer camp in Maine. Both young people broke rules that put them in danger, but the novel doesn’t dwell on that. Rather, it focuses on how they figure out solutions and refuse to give up. There are truly scary and dangerous situations throughout the novel, but most readers will find the story more exciting than horrifying. In addition, the short chapters with cliffhanger endings will entice reluctant readers and encourage opportunities for read-alouds at home or in school.
As his camp is bring evacuated, 12-year-old Sam breaks away from the buses to try to find his cell phone so he can call his mom. Once he tries to return to the group, the fire has blocked his way and he must escape on his own. He uses instinct and advice from his father, who died in Afghanistan, to make it through the first night and find an old logging camp. With the fire bearing down on him, Sam encounters a life-saving tool — an old Jeep! He manages to figure out how to start the Jeep and fumble around driving it on an old logging road. Sam stops to pick up 14-year-old Delphy, who is also escaping the fire but has badly sprained her ankle. Together, the two come close to perishing again and again, escaping only by their wits, determination, and sheer luck.
Philbrick’s style in Wildfire may feel repetitive to higher-level readers, even with the constant adventure and cleverness of the main characters, but it’s a wonderful book to draw in readers who are struggling to broaden their subject matter. In addition, the short chapters will be a boon for young people who work best with brief periods of reading.
The characters are both interesting and inventive young people. They learn to work together and appreciate each other’s skills and vulnerabilities. Readers get to know Sam’s backstory quite well, and Philbrick weaves modern issues like losing a parent during wartime (Sam’s dad was a civilian truck driver) and having another parent addicted to opioids into the story through Sam’s inner monologues. Delphy shares her own self-doubts as they get to know each other better. However, the book turns out to be a solid “buddy adventure” as both Sam and Delphy take turns both saving their lives and making decisions that cause more problems.
The wildfire itself becomes a character as it seems to chase and taunt the kids throughout the novel. Rutted roads, a moose in the way, a black bear, and a lightning storm all serve to foil Sam and Delphy’s escape. However, it is the two dirt-bike-riding arsonists who become terrifying antagonists halfway through the novel. Borne out of a hatred of “outsiders,” the brothers set fires in evacuated homes of the wealthy and summer camps as they chant “If you’re from away, stay away!” A sentiment that’s surely applicable to current events, and sadly will probably not fade anytime soon.
Overall, the themes of determination and working together to overcome impossible odds keep this book popular with both kids and adults. The characters are likable and relatable, and the exciting events are sure to keep readers engaged. WILDFIRE is recommended for grades 3 and up, depending on reading level. It is out September 3rd, 2019.