The book primarily follows Mona Problim, who is clever but also pretty. She distrusts the entire O'Pinion family, even though some of her siblings trust the children next door (though clearly the mother Desdemona O'Pinion has it out for them). As each of the Problim children is having dreams about their mother as they search for the sticks that can help them to find her, they decide to enter the town Carnival contests. The prize is to go into the caverns, where they suspect they may find something.
With riddles to solve, contests to be won, and lots of mystery afoot, this book is anything but boring. With some themes about not judging others based on appearances or prejudices, supporting family unconditionally, being true to yourself, and working together, this book has some great underlying messages.
What I loved: The story is overall humorous and has some really funny moments. For instance, Mona goes to the pageant's dress-up portion in a vampire costume, and of course, there is the humor children will appreciate of how baby Toot communicates through his gas (he has hundreds of different toots, categorized and described in footnotes). While the overall mystery continues as a thread connecting the books (where is Mama Problim?), there are a lot of smaller plotlines in this book that make it its own complete story. The lessons learned by the children- particularly Mona here- are really invaluable and given in an approachable way. For instance, what she learns about her neighbor and rival, Carly-Rue O'Pinion and how she ends up changing her stance on her.
Final verdict: Great for fans of Lemony Snicket, The Goonies, and general hijinks will enjoy this irreverent and comical middle grade fiction. With funny and teachable moments, this series is great for the older elementary school audience.