Okay, here's the premise: a multi-generational family runs an animal rescue business, working together to rescue wild animals that are discovered in the city. They rehabilitate the animals, and find good homes for them. That sounds like a sure-fire, can't-miss formula for successful tween fiction. Unfortunately, Gator on the Loose! gives us a thin plot, one-dimensional characters and a chaotic atmosphere.
Ten-year old Keisha Carter is our central character. She lives with her parents, her two younger brothers, and her grandmother. In the book, Carter's Urban Rescue (the family business) captures a small alligator swimming in the community swimming pool, and puts it in the bathtub at home. It escapes the bathtub, only to be recaptured in the yard. Then Keisha and her dad take the alligator to an alligator sanctuary. And that's the entire 149 page book.
Oh, a lot more happens. The neighbor kids come over and eat dry cereal from the cabinet, spilling it on the floor. Friends from school come over and talk about themselves. The mailman stops by and eats soup from a pot on the stove. The grandmother obsesses about her appearance. The five year-old brother talks endlessly about everything. The mother scolds and corrects and really doesn't seem to be "into" the whole animal rescue concept. The baby throws food. The dad shrugs his shoulders and does all the work. Keisha tags along but doesn't get to help with the dangerous stuff - which, when you're dealing with wild animals, is just about everything.
Honestly, the book reminds me of the Disney Channel/Nickelodeon sit-com model, where everyone who walks into the room tries to be louder and more flamboyant than everyone else. On page 115, Keisha finally gets a few minutes by herself on the family porch, and she daydreams about owning a dog. But within five minutes the entire family is there, talking about frogs and airplanes.
The book actually gets interesting the last 30 pages, as Keisha, her dad, and grandmother take the alligator to the alligator sanctuary. Grandmother gets distracted in the gift shop, and Keisha and her father get to spend some quality time learning about alligators. (In the appendix, we learn that the alligator sanctuary is a real place, and I suspect that was the motivation for writing the book.) But an odd conclusion follows, as Keisha and her friends launch a campaign to dissuade their friends from buying pet alligators. Is this a huge problem?
I would think that after seeing a first draft, an editor would encourage Stauffacher to develop more of a plot, eliminate at least four or five of the superfluous characters, and re-work Mom and Grandmother to make the former more likeable and the latter less loony. As it is now, Keisha and her dad are the only characters we'd want to spend more than five minutes in a room with. The editor would also run a readability test and instruct Stauffacher to lower the reading level (currently 4.7) to match the interest level (I would say 3rd or 4th grade level.)
Animal Rescue Team is a 4-book series, and I haven't read the rest. With so many good tween books available, I won't take the time to investigate the series further.