I thoroughly enjoyed Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs! This was another of my accidental finds while browsing library shelves. The cartoonish illustration of an upside-down hippo and the title intrigued me. The story is an excellent, sophisticatedly-plotted mystery. The main character is 12-year-old Teddy. He narrates the story in an absolutely authentic voice that engages the reader almost immediately.
The story centers around an elaborate zoo/amusement attraction called FunJungle to which Teddy and his parents have just relocated after several years in Africa. The wealthy owner has decided on Henry the Hippo as the mascot for the theme park. Teddy, whose mother is a zookeeper and whose father is a wildlife photographer, knows that in reality a hippo is a vicious animal totally unsuited to be a cheery theme park mascot.
When Henry the Hippo dies suddenly, Teddy is convinced it is murder. The mystery deepens as Teddy pursues his investigation. He teams up with an unlikely partner in young Summer McCracken and together they find themselves in life-threatening situations–obviously a warning to cease their snooping.
The action is fast-paced, driven by both adventure and character. Along the way the reader learns an immense amount about the behind-the-scenes machinations of a zoo, hippos, monkeys/apes and a variety of other animals, all of which is built skillfully into the narrative.
I HIGHLY recommend this book as an independent read for 5th-8th graders (and possibly advanced 4th graders). It could even be a possible read-aloud for 6th-9th grade classes, depending on the make-up and dynamics of the individual class.