Cover of The Elephant of Surprise by Brent Hartinger. A young man stands with his back to the viewer. He's wearing a party hat and an elephant's trunk is draped over his shoulder.

About the Book

Title: The Elephant of Surprise (Russel Middlebrook #4)
Published: 2013

Cover Story: When You See It, You’ll Poop Bricks
Drinking Buddy:
Pass the Dandelion Wine
Testosterone Level:
Meh to Eighty in 200 Pages
Talky Talk:
Bonus Factors:
Freeganism, Crazy Friend
Bromance Status:
Nerd of My Dreams

Cover Story: When you See It, You’ll Poop Bricks

Yeah, we’ve heard the complaints before: typical YA cover, good looking guy, cute girl, faces obscured, social setting…and what the hell is that?

Yes, that’s an elephant trunk wrapped around the guy’s shoulder. No, this isn’t some cutesy Disney movie, where the boy befriends a lonely pachyderm. And it’s not a Three Stooges film, where he has to hide Jumbo from his parents. The title comes from a mishearing of the phrase ‘The Element of Surprise’: When the Elephant of Surprise stepped on you, it really, really hurt.

I’m reminded of the old phrase, ‘Seeing the Elephant,‘ which describes optimism in the face of catastrophe, and feeling that experiencing beautiful emotion is worth whatever adversity you faced to get there. Which is this book in a nutshell.

The Deal:

This is the fourth book in the series that began with Geography Club (though could easily stand alone).

Russel Middlebrook, who only recently came out of the closet, is already having relationship troubles. Otto, his long-distance boyfriend, has become more of a Facebook buddy than a lover. Kevin, Russel’s bad boy first flame is determined to win Russel back, even if it means developing a social conscience. His friend Min is having troubles with her own girlfriend, and his buddy Gunnar has decided to make a video diary of his entire–ENTIRE–life.

Enter Wade, a handsome, nineteen-year-old African-American. Wade is essentially homeless by choice, living a sustainable, off-the-grid existence. Russel, of course, falls hard. But does Wade even notice him? Could Russel give up everything for the hobo existence? And for crying out loud, is Wade even gay?

Drinking Buddy: Pass the Dandelion Wine

Two pints of beer cheersing

I love this cast of characters. Min, the radical, bisexual feminist who who is also an emotional teenage girl; Wade and his buddies who live a cash-free lifestyle, sharing everything in a modern day commune; and Gunnar, determined to be the Abraham Zapruder of his generation. You know you’re reading a good book when you project your own high school self into the group. And with Russel being an unassuming, likeable everyman, it’s easy to do just that.

Testosterone Level: Meh to Eighty in 200 Pages

I’m not going to lie, this is a feelings book. Not a lot of artillery or back alley fist fights in this one. That is, until the last chapters. Then it turns into an episode of 24. I can say no more. Suffice it to say, Russel becomes a man in this installment, and not in the sexy way.

Talky Talk: LGBTQ

The thing I like about the Russel Middlebrook series is that it’s a a book about a gay teen, but it’s not an ‘issues’ book. Russel (and for that matter, Min and Kevin), are just a bunch of kids. Their feelings are new and frightening, their relationships are short and intense, and they feel that no one understands them. Just like every other teenager in the world…and many adults. See the upcoming ‘Between Two Lockers’ with the author for more on this subject.

Bonus Factor: Freeganism

a painted 1970s VW van

Wade and his friends are freegans: they live a totally sustainable lifestyle, living in an abandoned house, sharing all possessions, and eating perfectly good food that others would pass up, such as roadkill, wild plants, and food from the trash. In fact, Russel first meets Wade while he’s retrieving food from the school’s Dumpster: the cafeteria can only keep certain foods for so long. Wade is determined to recruit Russel to the freegan lifestyle, showing him the joys of uncomplicated living. Russel hopes Wade practices another sort of alternate lifestyle that they can both enjoy.

Bonus Factor: Crazy Friend

Steve Martin, a wild and crazy guy

Though Gunnar was not the main character, I really liked the guy. In earlier books, Russel and Min speculate if his odd behavior is due to undiagnosed Aspergers, but later decide he’s just peculiar. In Elephant, he literally records everything that happens to him, espouses weird conspiracy theories, and complicates Russel’s romantic life (when Russel asks Gunnar to keep an eye in Kevin, he secretly takes nude photos of him). Nonetheless, Gunnar is a steadfast friend, has the least complicated romantic relationship of the trio, and saves the day more than once. Everyone has a friend like Gunnar (and if you don’t, then it’s probably you).

Bromance Status: Nerd of My Dreams

I’m not gay (I was married before I realized the color of one’s slacks, belt, socks and shoes needed to relate), but if I were, I’d totally go for a guy like Russel. Smart, funny, awkward…

Um, how ’bout those Rams?

FTC Full Disclosure: I got a free copy from the author. So there. No money, though.

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.