Dan vs. Nature

  • By Don Calame
  • Candlewick Press
  • 384 pp.
  • Reviewed by Kurt Dinan
  • September 7, 2016

A refreshingly unserious YA novel full of laughs and heart.

Dan vs. Nature

I’ll be the one to say it: The world of YA needs more fun and funny novels. Many recent books seem to be “issue-oriented” stories focused on teenagers with serious concerns that promote deep thinking.

And, honestly, I think it’s great there are novels out there where teens can go to realize they’re not alone. But if your experience as a teenager was anything like mine, you remember that being that age is also filled with a lot of goofing off, terrible decisions that lead to chaos, and just general knuckleheaded-ness. It’s a focus and feel of many middle-grade novels, but unfortunately is often lacking in YA. Luckily, we have authors like Don Calame and his outrageously hilarious Dan vs. Nature to help fill the gap.

The best novels have the simplest of concepts, and Dan vs. Nature certainly fits the mold. Sixteen-year-old Dan Weekes has seven days while on a survivalist camping trip to scare off macho man Hank from marrying his mom. Joining Dan in his quest is his brilliantly scheming and verbally gifted friend Charlie, a puking Baby-Real-A-Lot doll, and a backpack filled with sabotage equipment. As expected, chaos and hilarity ensue.

Of course, in his efforts to drive his potential stepfather away, Dan mostly damages himself. Popular writing advice says to keep the tension high you should put your main character up in a tree and throw rocks at him. Calame not only literally puts Dan up a tree while being chased by a bear, but also subjects him to explosive diarrhea, a wasp attack, poisoned chili, a broken nose, and poison ivy in the worst place imaginable. To say nothing of how Dan regularly humiliates himself in front of Penelope, an “adorkable” girl also on the trip. Together, it makes for a manic novel that’s a reminder of how fun reading can be.

Not that the book is devoid of depth. As Dan’s pranks increase in frequency and intensity, his conscience does begin to bother him, as the reader hopes it will. The book is given a nice heart from questions of how far is too far and Dan’s worrying about his mother’s well-being and search for happiness.

Calame, author of the excellent Swim the Fly trilogy, hasn’t written a book that’s going to change your life in profound ways, and I think he understands that. Books filled with scenes based around every bodily function possible rarely do (unfortunately).

Instead, Calame, along with other YA authors like Jeff Strand, Libba Bray, and Lance Rubin, understands that laughter is a large part of growing up, and books can and should reflect that. Dan vs. Nature is perfect for anyone who needs a laugh-out-loud break from all the serious YA novels filling the shelves these days.

Kurt Dinan is author of Don’t Get Caught, a YA caper novel with lots of inappropriate behavior, juvenile humor, and little educational value. He teaches high-school English in Cincinnati, where he lives with his wife and four children.

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