October 14, 2021


The Last Kids on Earth: June’s Wild Flight. By Max Brallier. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Viking. $13.99.

The Last Kids on Earth No. 6: The Last Kids on Earth and the Skeleton Road. By Max Brallier. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Viking. $13.99.

The Last Kids on Earth: Thrilling Tales from the Tree House. By Max Brallier. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate, Lorena Alvarez Gómez, Xavier Bonet, Jay Cooper, Christopher Mitten, and Anoosha Syed. Viking. $13.99.

The Last Kids on Earth No. 7: The Last Kids on Earth and the Doomsday Race. By Max Brallier. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Viking. $14.99.

     The release of the seventh main-sequence novel of the enormously successful Max Brallier/Douglas Holgate series, The Last Kids on Earth, is as good a time as any to take an overview of the sequence and observe how it has evolved through the years, how it has stayed the same, and whether it deserves its continuing popularity. In fact, it has changed very little since the first book, simply titled The Last Kids on Earth, came out in 2015 – but there have been some alterations and modifications in the end-of-world-action-adventure formula, and those have cemented the continuing popularity of the series while making it a tad more diffuse than it really needs to be.

     Both Pandemic Year 1 (2020) and Pandemic Year 2 (2021) have brought the arrival of not one but two entries in the sequence, one in the “main line” of the story and one with a lesser connection – although not quite constituting a “spinoff.” Given the somewhat apocalyptic nature of the entire experience of living through COVID-19 lockdowns, not to mention deaths and widespread severe-but-not-fatal illnesses, The Last Kids on Earth seems, if not prescient, certainly a series for our time. But that is not quite what Brallier and Holgate intend it to be. The very first book was the most serious, making it seem as if the four protagonists really were the last kids on Earth after a terrifying, zombie-producing “end of the world as we know it” scenario. The series initially focused on the budding relationships among Jack Sullivan, Quint Baker, June Del Toro, and Dirk Savage, the whole starting as an end-of-the-world dystopia, with monsters taking over everything and four preteens/young teenagers being the only survivors and needing to find a way to fight off the zombies that had appeared everywhere – after first developing ways to overcome their personal differences and unite into a cohesive zombie-fighting unit and a real post-apocalyptic team. The series also started, and has continued, with Holgate’s usually bizarre and often clever illustrations, which have been a highlight of the books all along. Not content to leave well enough alone, though, Brallier started widening the series’ scope: it turned out that the last kids on Earth were not the last kids on Earth, and it turned out that even though Earth was now overrun by zombies and other monsters, there were also good monsters out there, ones that just happened to get together with the four not-really-last kids to help them out. The series remained enjoyable (and commercially successful) even when the fourth book, The Last Kids on Earth and the Cosmic Beyond, turned into a grotesque Christmas-y thing.

     However, the fifth book, The Last Kids on Earth and the Midnight Blade, got back to the teamwork-in-a-cartoonish-video-game-apocalypse approach that lies at the heart of the sequence, and the sixth and seventh main-sequence books have continued in much the same vein. Not completely the same vein, though, because Brallier has now extended the series with a couple of more-or-less standalone books. And The Last Kids on Earth now has a “meta” component, with the kids seeming to have become aware that they are being chronicled. Thus, June’s Wild Flight happens after the fifth book, and it starts with June and other characters addressing the reader directly. Then, on the title page, the four protagonists are hanging out together and Dirk is saying, “Hey, waitaminnit. June gets her own book before us? What gives?” And then, when one of the usual video-game-style monster battles results in June being separated from the group, Holgate contributes a marvelous illustration of June dancing for joy, her feet going “tip tappity tip tip tap” while she exclaims, “June adventure, June adventure, time for a June Solo Adventure!” In other words, the whole zombie apocalypse thing has now faded into the background of the series, and the characters are in no danger of being seriously harmed (no matter how many times they say they are worried about that): these are out-and-out romps that just happen to occur within a vast wasteland of ruined towns and with the encroachment of extra-dimensional monsters and assorted zombies (which, by the way, do not try to destroy the protagonists anymore and are not even evil).

     June’s Wild Flight increases the cuteness quotient of The Last Kids on Earth – another thing that has been rising significantly as matters progress. Accompanying June on her adventure is tiny monster Globlet, who is absolutely adorable; an owl-like, overdressed monster who calls himself Johnny Steve to affirm his affinity with humans, about whom he knows everything, which turns out to mean “nothing, but his mistakes are funny”; and a wingless baby Wretch that June rescues and of whom she becomes enormously fond even though winged adult Wretches are horrible, evil, rotten, destructive, vicious, etc. These characters appear/reappear in the main sequence, so June’s Wild Flight is sort of a standalone book, but sort of not one. Brallier is trying to have things both ways – pretty successfully, too.

     Back in the main, numbered books, the protagonists continue their quest for information about the ultimate trans-dimensional baddie who isn’t quite powerful enough to get through a portal to Earth but has on-Earth allies, monstrous and human, trying to nudge things just enough to bring him aboard so he can, you know, destroy everything. In The Last Kids on Earth and the Skeleton Road, this leads to Quint’s wholly appropriate encapsulation of the story to date: “More middle-school kids should take epic road trips across monster-filled apocalyptic landscapes of doom.” Also here are the usual weird-looking sources of important information: “The dude behind the counter always has the answers,” Jack says, accurately. And then there is the discovery of another adorable tiny monster: Drooler, who produces slime that will be a crucial weapon in battles to come, and whom Dirk promises to care for and cuddle and protect forever – except that in The Last Kids on Earth and the Doomsday Race, he cannot do any of those things, because the reappearance of one of the major evil characters and his (its?) human accomplice gets in the way and forces Jack to run for mayor of a monster-sized, monster-filled megamall carried on the back of a monster-sized sort-of-mollusk dubbed (what else?) the Mega Mallusk. Yes, a mayoral election in which most voters are monsters is the central theme of the seventh book, and that is utterly ridiculous – but no more so than the increasingly outré events of the books and Holgate’s increasingly outré visual portrayals of them.

     The importance of Holgate to The Last Kids on Earth cannot be overstated. Although not actually graphic novels – they are extremely heavily illustrated regular novels aimed at a preteen audience – the books have always had a strong graphic-novel flavor, with the illustrations being integral to the storylines rather than simply illustrative of characters and events. Just how significant Holgate is in this sequence is shown in Thrilling Tales from the Tree House, a 2021 standalone book quite different from the 2020 standalone featuring June. Thrilling Tales from the Tree House really is a graphic novel, and its framing tale is indicative of where this series now finds itself: series characters tell six amusing stories among themselves for the privilege of fighting a huge monster that has shown up at the tree house. Yes, the protagonists (and their friends) tell funny stories to decide who will have the privilege of a solo battle against a terrifying monster that has trapped everyone – thereby confirming, if confirmation were needed, that none of the monster-battling in these books is really to be taken seriously anymore. To accentuate the different storytelling styles of the characters, the graphic-novel sequences here are drawn by people other than Holgate – and while most of the art is good enough (and some is better than that), the illustrations serve mainly to show how much more thoroughly immersed in these books Holgate is when compared to anyone else. Indeed, there really is no comparison: without Holgate, Brallier’s increasingly diffuse storytelling would not hold together nearly as well as it does.

     The proof of this lies in a graphic novel in Thrilling Tales from the Tree House that is illustrated by Holgate, and that features Evie Snark (human evildoer) and Ghazt the General (monstrous extra-dimensional evildoer) explaining “pertinent events between books four and seven.” Absurd, unnecessary and genuinely interesting, this 56-page “stories behind the stories” bit is by far the best thing in Thrilling Tales from the Tree House and, really, the only reason to have the book – other than to be able to brag about having all the books in this series, including the ones that are not exactly in this series. Brallier and Holgate will have to end The Last Kids on Earth sometime – it can only be expanded and drawn out so far – but as of now, both the main sequence and the ancillary books continue to show the inventiveness, video-game-like pacing and underlying silliness whose uneasy mixture is what keeps all the characters and events in the books as engaging and enjoyable as they are ridiculous and unbelievable. Formulaic? Well, yes, but as of now, the formula is a mighty successful one.

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