At first glance, The Gollywhopper Games, by Jody Feldman, is strictly an homage to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl. The basic plot is certainly similar: boy competes with less-deserving children for a prize which will set his family on the path to prosperity. There are other similarities, but the main device used in Gollywhopper is puzzle-solving.
Gil Goodson's father was fired from his position at Golly Games for suspected embezzlement. When the verdict of "not-guilty" was handed down at the trial, many of the people in town thought Mr. Goodson had merely gotten away with the crime. Eighteen months after his father was fired and a year after he was acquitted, Gil is still suffering slights and bullying at school and around town. Some still consider him the son of a thief and a cheater. The real embezzler has never been identified.
When Golly Games announces a major contest to celebrate its 50-year anniversary, Gil is determined to compete. The rules state contestants may not be the children of Golly employees or of someone who has worked for Golly in the last year. Gil's father was fired over a year ago, so Gil is eligible. He prepares himself for the games by compiling a file of Golly trivia covering its entire history. He studies it until he has it practically memorized.
The day of the games, Gil lines up with thousands of others outside the local stadium hoping for a place in the competition. Of course, he gets in. Then, he has to answer multiple trivia questions to earn a spot as a semi-finalist, then as a finalist. Of course, he makes it to the final ten, then the final five. His team-mates in the final ten competition includes the son of another former Golly employee who left the company at about the same time as Gil's father; the son of a wealthy man who "bought" an instant-win ticket so his son didn't have to stand in line; the daughter of an over-protective mother; and a seemingly dim-witted girl who is using the Games as her opportunity to get noticed on television.
They compete against another five-member team for the chance to be the final five. Each of Gil's team-mates contributes their own special talents, skills, and knowledge to solving the five puzzles which will propel them to the final round. Once there, they are eliminated one by one until there are only two players left. A spectacular twist recalls the other three for an unexpected, "do-over", winner-take-all round.
Readers are invited to solve the puzzles along with the contestants, although we don't have all information for some of them. I saw the answer to the BIG puzzle long before the mystery was solved by the characters, but did not feel cheated or otherwise let down by the foreknowledge.
I found myself leaning forward, urging Gil and his team-mate/competitors on as they figured their way to the end in a battle of wits which could end in the exoneration of Gil's father and certainly in untold riches for his family. And that's the difference between The Gollywhopper Games and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Charlie just kind of sat back and waited to see what would happen. Charlie got lucky. Gil pursues, solves, and takes an active approach toward resolving his family's dilemma. Gil doesn't just finish first; he wins.