Monday, August 31, 2009

What is Lurking Behind the Walls?

The Wolves in the Walls
by Neil Gaiman
Illustrations by Dave McKean
Harper Collins, 2003

The Wolves in the Walls, is a wild story with a level-headed heroine. The premise of the book plays on basic fears (home intrusion, fears of childhood fantasy) and takes the reader on a heart-thumping journey.

Lucy and her trusty pig puppet heard noises coming from inside the walls. While unsuccessfully trying to convince her family that the noises are coming from wolves in the walls, she is also introduced to an apparently well known axiom. A warning, if you were. “If the wolves come out of the walls, then it’s all over.” Her family doesn’t take her too seriously, even though Lucy is utterly convinced it is wolves inside the walls. Yet, despite her family’s flippant responses to her worries, there is an imminent sense of danger that they all seem to accept, either openly or subconsciously.

And then, one night, that danger awakens in a horrible way when the wolves finally do come out of the walls. The family flees the house and surrenders their home and possessions to the vicious, wily canines. Even though they are left to sleep in the garden, the entire family is safe, all except for Lucy’s puppet, the one entity that trusted her about the wolves. As her family is suggesting new, and wacky, places to live, Lucy decides she must get her puppet back. Upon stealthily re-entering the house and seeing the disrespectful actions of the four-legged fiends, Lucy resolves herself and convinces her family to take back what is theirs. Following is a brave conquest and a surprise twist ending.

This book is yet another amazing creation from author Neil Gaiman and illustrator Dave McKean. Gaiman’s writing is skillful and flows well, despite the twisted tale he is weaving. McKean’s illustrations compliment the story perfectly. His mixed media artwork emphasizes the chaotic plotline of this book. On one page you might see a dynamic ink drawing, while the next is a mixed-material collage. This type of artistic style suits the characters and the storyline.

The main character in this story reminds me of some of the Greek heroes. Lucy is not a hero in this story because she is superhuman or is untouched by fear. Her heroism lies in the fact that she experiences fear, terror even, yet steadfastly rises above it. Just as I’m sure Theseus was terrified when he went to slay the Minotaur, Lucy was when she went to win back her home from the wolves. Taking the reigns of her family and acknowledging the importance of allegiance to ones home and ones family, Lucy swallows her fear and accepts the daunting task of winning her stomping grounds back, as well as her puppet.

This story is great, not only for its wonderful writing and ferocious illustrations, but also because it teaches a few important lessons. Children learn that they can be heroes and leaders in their own family units. It was Lucy who first noticed, believed in, and eventually defeated the wolves. This can show children that they too can take active roles in their own lives and in their own safety. Adults can learn to take stock in what their children say. Sometimes we are so swift to dismiss things that children say just because it seems like nonsense or we can’t make hide nor hair of it. Perhaps we need to listen more intently when little mouths speak. I would recommend this book as a read-aloud or read together book with adults and young readers or pre-readers.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

It's All About the Hair

The Witch's Child
by Arthur Yorinks; illustrated by Jos A. Smith

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2007

The Witch's Child is one of the most seriously creepy children's books I've come across in a good, long while. The illustrations are terrifying; the Witch Rosina's posture drips with menace. The story draws from the fairy tale tradition, a cross between Hansel and Gretel and Pinocchio, and doesn't shy from the dark nature of the form; the result being a tale full of the kind of magic and terror of the true classics.

Rosina is a violent and cruel witch who, on a whim, decides to try creating a child for herself out of spare rags and straw, and bits of her own hair. However, she can't bring the little doll to life no matter how hard she tries, and in a fit of pique turns all the other children to bramble bushes. Finally, Rosina casts the doll aside, to be found later by a young girl named Lina, who rearranges her limbs and treats her with kindness. Rosina finds Lina with her forgotten child, and attacks her with knife in hand. The ending is happy, but it's paid for with a terrible price.

The Witch's Child is by turns stark and hopeful, with the occasional moment of truly off-putting humor thrown in - Rosina's smile is actually worse than her scowl, if you'd believe it. The "life" of the doll is also full of childhood fears, abandonment chief among them. However, the really wonderful part of this story is in the nature of her awakening - unlike Pinocchio, who requires an external conscience and is brought to life by someone else's love, the doll child wills herself into life to protect someone else from her own creator. The message of self-determination is subtle, but empowering.

Don't let the seemingly snuggly cover illustration fool you: this book is one of those really great scary stories that reminds me of why I love horror. Smith's illustrations are downright beautiful; from the first page, even Rosina's posture drips with malicious intent. The curse she lays on the children is captured mid-transformation, as is their eventual return. More sensitive children might be disturbed by the imagery and the content of the story, but, like The Spider and the Fly, and most fairy tales, for that matter, the object is to teach them to have a healthy respect for their own fears and (hopefully) to inspire them to rise above it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Too Much Strawberry Junky Business

The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher
by Molly Bang
Aladdin Papberbacks, ©1996
Four Winds Press, ©1980

The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher is a suspenseful and delightful picture book. This Caldecott Honor winning wordless picture book follows the Grey Lady’s frightful trek home from the produce market with a pint of fresh, juicy strawberries. Upon leaving the market she is being relentlessly stalked by a greedy perpetrator known only as the “Strawberry Snatcher.”

As the book opens, the reader is instantly attracted to the pleasure upon the Grey Lady’s face as she purchases her strawberries and heads home. However, subtle shading techniques and figurative motifs in Bang’s illustrations foreshadow horrible events to come. For instance, as she is walking out of the door from the market, the shop behind her looks dark and foreboding. Subsequently, as she is heading down the sidewalk on the next page, we see a shocking and sinister face peering around the corner, intent on following her. This is the dark element or the evil figure that just might mean doom for the Grey Lady. He follows her by the shops in town, skateboards after her when she boards the bus, and he continues to follow her into an oddly beautiful swamp, an eerily daunting forest, and finally into a foggy grey clearing where the book reaches a startling climax.

For a wordless book, this story is an engaging page-turner. The rich and textured illustrations employ a vivid color palette which in turn creates a landscape that harnesses the driving energy of the story. The decision to illustrate the Grey Lady as a subtle, soft figure and the Strawberry Snatcher as a bizarre and freakish creature enhances the elements of the story. The Grey lady blends in with the landscape. You get the feeling she has lived in this area for a long time. It is her intimate knowledge of the environment which allows her to outwit her attacker again and again. The strange and colorful appearance of the Strawberry Snatcher illustrates he is an interloper on the local landscape. His fiendish features compared with the deep laugh lines and warm wrinkles of the Grey Lady further demonstrate the dichotomy which is the overall theme of the story: good vs. evil, the honest old lady vs. the devilish thief trying to wrest her most sacred treasure.

The wondrous artistry of this book makes it a triumphant yet spooky achievement. Readers are given the framework for constructing their own imaginative journey. Taking cues from facial expressions, environment, movement, and other illustrative devices, the reader can feel for themselves what emotions are conjured up and decide for themselves how to feel about the book's resolution. This is one of the great things about wordless picture books; there is so much more room for interpretation. The rise and fall of the plot of this book is one that can be appreciated by young and old alike and the pictures themselves can be appreciated for their detail and richness. Overall, I would recommend this book for readers of all ages.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Suspect Hospitality

The Spider and the Fly
by Mary Howitt, illustrated by Tony Diterlizzi
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, ©2002

The Spider and the Fly
is Tony Diterlizzi's delightfully creepy modern reworking of the 1829 cautionary tale by early romantic poet Mary Howitt. "Will you walk into my parlor?" asks the Spider of the Fly; a now-classic opening salvo in a story meant to warn children to be careful and observant of seemingly well-meaning strangers.

Diterlizzi's illustrations are packed with wonderfully subtle, terrible details on every page. The visual narrative is intricate, which adds value to repeat readings - even the wallpaper and curtains are drawn with wry, sardonic humor and a gallows mentality, and grisly easter-eggs abound. Despite the parable quality of the original poem, the anthropomorphized characters re-enforce the depth of horror: this is a story of seduction and murder, and may not be suitable for children who don't already have a fairly morbid sense of humor and a decent conceptual grasp of death.

Reading this book aloud, I found myself drawn subconsciously into imitating the sonorous, gravelly voice of Christopher Lee - the softly glowing font demands as much. The Spider, with his dangerous, rolling eyes and oily smile, channels Vincent Price, one of the kings of silent horror, and the Fly is reminiscent of Greta Schröder and Louise Brooks. Naturally, these details will be lost on young readers, but it's never too late to introduce these classic gems to your burgeoning horror afficionado's repertoire.

If the name sounds familiar, that's because Tony Diterlizzi is the co-creator of the Spiderwick Chronicles with another author of gothic children's stories, Holly Black (whose work will inevitably be reviewed here as well). Geekery: Diterlizzi got his start with gaming company TSR, working on Dungeons & Dragons books, and moved on to Magic: the Gathering when TSR was bought out by Wizards of the Coast. There's also a fascinating picture of former First Lady Laura Bush reading The Spider and the Fly on the illustrator's wikipedia page.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Enter if You Dare

56 Water Street
by Melissa Strangway
iUniverse Inc., ©2007

56 Water Street is a startling and mysterious book. Designed for young mystery readers and ghost hunters, the book follows the events surrounding a spooky abandoned house and two ten year old friends, Derek and Ravine.

Nobody in town talks about the rambling, weather worn house at 56 Water Street. This is truly bizarre, because strange stuff is happening. The book opens with Derek and Ravine noticing the lights flickering on and off in the long abandoned house. Feeling frightened and concerned, the children rush home to tell their parents only to shockingly discover their parents say there is no house at that address. Eventually, the children find out they are the only ones who notice the house and the strange happenings inside. To the rest of the world, 56 Water Street is a vacant lot with a sordid past.

Derek and Ravine need to find out why they are the only ones able to see the house at 56 Water Street. What does it mean that they can see it and others can’t? They slowly take more chances to investigate and actually enter the house, learning that time stands still for them when they enter the premises. Even more bizarre then the house itself, there is a supernatural force compelling them to become involved with the house. This force enters their dreams and thoughts and compels them to return to the house again and again. It is as if somebody or something is trying to get their attention and trying to give them a message from the other side.

With the help of a fortune teller, who is actually a self proclaimed spirtit medium, Derek and Ravine come to acknowledge that they too have a special gift. Similar to Cole in the Sixth Sense, Derek and Ravine have a sensitivity to dead people who are trapped on earth. It is this sensitivity that allows them to see and enter 56 Water Street and to realize that the resident ghost on the premises needs their help before she can finally rest in peace. Accepting the spooky task the universe has laid at their feet, the children venture once again into the house to help the ghost solve the sorrowful mystery that is keeping her spirit form bound to the house. What follows is a spine-tingling and eerie adventure with an uplifting and hopeful ending.

This book is a sound example of a middle grade mystery. The protagonists are relatable and you are able to become attached to them, particularly Ravine. Her façade of strength and courage is obviously only a thin layer attempting to cover over a very tortured soul. Since she has suffered from her own recent tragedy, it makes sense why she is perhaps more in tune to other spiritual realms. Ravine’s tragedy and the ghost’s dilemma in 56 Water Street create a very melancholy undertone in addition to all the chills and surprises of the mystery in the book. The pain in this book is palpable and it strongly evokes the emotional sensibilities of the reader. I would recommend this book for those who are looking for a tingling paranormal mystery.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ew, Yuck, Repeat

by Scott Westerfeld
Razorbill, ©2005

Peeps is Scott Westerfeld's attempt to create a vampire book that is "new and interesting, while still being full of bitey goodness". Short answer: he succeeds. In all of his novels, Westerfeld weaves the culture into his storytelling, and this is no less true of Peeps.

Cal Thompson has spent the last year of his life hunting down every girl he's kissed for the last year, ever since he was infected with a disease that turns ninety-nine percent of those who catch it into crazed, cannibalistic recluses who fear the sun and everything they ever loved. Cal himself is one of the "lucky" ones, made stronger and faster by the disease, but at the cost of becoming a carrier - infecting everyone he comes into intimate contact with the disease.

To make his life even more difficult, the parasite causes carriers to become more intensely attractive and easily attracted to others in order to spread itself more effectively. Even worse, Cal is tasked with finding his progenitor, the girl who gave him the disease in the first place, before she can spread the disease to others. Unfortunately, there are things more terrible than vampires in the depths of the City, and his search seems to be taking him directly into their path.

By grounding his story in scientific realism and evolutionary theory, Westerfeld makes his story much richer than your average modern vampire fare. Rather than relying strictly on tired emotional stereotypes and vague, worn-out mythologies, he infuses the genre with warm, freshly oxygenated blood. Try not to groan too hard...

Westerfeld presents a unique twist on the vampire mythos, deeply grounded in our own reality, with its parasites and diseases infinitely more terrifying than anything the author could have made up himself. What's really great about this book is that Westerfeld recognizes this fact, and uses it to make his own story more interesting and icky. Told through the voice of Cal, every other chapter is actually a brief description of the life cycle of some horrible real-life invisible parasitic monster or other. The result? Believable, scary, dynamic vampires and a story grounded in thoroughly modern sensibilities: plus a readership left with a healthy terror of ants, rats, cats and tropical rivers. (ewww!)

Another great aspect of Scott Westerfeld's writing is his fluency with modern language; he has a knack for lending a sinister twist to the everyday vocabulary of the under-thirty set. Cal Thompson, the narrator, is a typical (if geeky) nineteen-year-old boy surrounded by other college-age characters, all living on their own in a real life city; you never doubt this, because all of Westerfeld's characters and places sound exactly like what they're supposed to be. Without crossing into gratuitous descriptiveness, the novel also doesn't flinch from real-world sexuality and emotional complexity. Written with wry humor and a mild obsession for the bizarre and terrible, Cal's pains, fears and attractions are accessible and real.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Dead Rose From Their Graves

Wake the Dead
by Monica A. Harris
Illustrations by Susan Estelle Kwas
Walker & Company, Inc.

In Wake the Dead, Henry is having a loud day. He is so loud in fact that his entire family warns him his rowdy, boisterous behavior will “wake the dead.” Ignoring their warning, he keeps up his wild ruckus throughout the house. Well, lo and behold, guess what? He wakes the dead! So rudely awakened, the reanimated corpses crawl out of their coffins and peel themselves from their graves to find the source of the racket.

In a delightfully disturbing slapdash adventure, the zombies, in drop dead gorgeous designer fashion, make their way across town tracing the noise to its source. With many stops along the way, such as at the library (“I expect dead silence in here!”), city hall (nothing but “skeletons in the closets”), and the community pool (“awesome dead man’s float!”), the formerly breathing set finally sense the noisemaker “dead ahead.”

When the zombie crew meets Henry face to face in the field, he is very eager to rectify the situation. After failed attempts to get things back to the status quo, i.e., corpses resting peacefully below ground or in their mausoleums and little boys playing with their dogs without fear of the zombie invasion, Henry finds the perfect solution to whisk the corpses off to dream land. In the end Henry learns his lesson and I bet he will be a bit more mindful when his folks ask him to keep it down.

The illustrations in this book are quite kooky, with an etching-like appearance, particularly on the darker hues. Given the subject matter of zombies raising from the grave, the author and illustrator make a quality synthesis of text and images to reflect the target audience of this book. The linguistic style of the book relies heavily on wordplay and the pun. The pun, despite your feelings about its use in conversation, when used in story, is a great way for children to experience different meanings in language and to experiment with the versatility of words. The silly scenarios in the book are bound to evoke a few giggle fits, in young and not so young alike. I really appreciated the fanciful and lighthearted approach the author took in this book and found it to be very effective in the creation of a quality picture book. Overall, this book is a delight and it is the perfect choice for a little one that is looking for something a bit more macabre than the standard fare.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Snicket Goes to the Orchestra

The Composer is Dead
by Lemony Snicket
HarperCollinsPublishers, ©2009

Lemony Snicket's newest masterpiece, The Composer is Dead, serves multiple purposes. Taking the format of a murder mystery (guess who the victim is!), the book serves first as a fantastic introduction to the parts of an orchestra, individually and as a whole. It is also an excellent primer in Snicket's signature brand of dry wit and macabre sensibilities.

The Composer (now decomposing) had died, and it is left to the Inspector (who is suspiciously autobiographical) to determine who was the culprit, and find them wherever they may be lurking. He then interrogates each section in turn, beginning with the violins and moving right through strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. Each instrument, though, gives an alibi, until the Inspector reaches the Conductor himself, and discovers to his horror that "dead composers litter the musical world...". The entire orchestra comes to the Composer's rescue, however, with a revelation both shocking and hilarious (depending on your constitution).

One of the neat parts of this book is the CD that comes with it. In the first half of this, Lemony Snicket reads the story aloud with orchestral accompaniment composed by (still living) Nathaniel Stookey. The second half is just the music, without Snicket. As each instrument is interrogated, it is heard in the background, so that the second half of the CD can be used to help children learn to identify each instrument by sound.

The artwork in this book is somber, and a little bit retro; the color palette is reminiscent of 70's "Sesame Street", all faded earth-tones which could be friendly or tiring, depending on your tastes. Of course, that's probably the point - the Snicket books have always challenged the sensibilities of the young, glowing and lively, and are best suited to the underage curmudgeon-in-training.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sanitary Friends

The Soap Lady
by Renee French
Top Shelf Productions, Inc., 2001.

The Soap Lady is an outlandish, heartwarming story of friendship, hope and sanitation, written and drawn by Renee French.

The story opens as the Soap Lady rises gently from the sea in a disconcerting parallel to the birth myth of Aphrodite. She is a lumpen, shambling horror; a bloated and dessicated body supported by skeletal legs, with a skull for a head. She meets Rollo, a young boy who can't seem to stay clean, and the two become instant friends. When the villager adults discover her presence, however, she is driven back into the sea, but not before leaving Rollo with a truly disturbing parting gift to remember her by.

Renee French's artwork consistently straddles the border between the uncomfortable and the charming, evoking the ticklish morbidity of Edward Gorey and the visual social criticism of Jhonen Vasques. However, French's imagery is much softer and more soothing than Gorey's, and far less frenetic than Vasques'. Moments that would be revolting if they were handled by any other artist become touching and somewhat sweet in this book... until you realize what exactly just happened. The beauty of The Soap Lady is in French's deft balancing of themes of loving friendship and rising horror.

According to a short blurb in the back of the book, the story was inspired by the real-life discovery of a corpse in a Philadelphia cemetery whose fat had turned to adipocere (aka grave wax) after burial. Adipocere derives from adipose - the multi-function substance found throughout the human body which builds up in excess in obese people.

For those of geek persuasion: you may also remember that the Tenth Doctor faced down an army of adorable Adipose aliens with Donna Noble in the first episode of the fourth series of Doctor Who. Apparently, there's just something about this substance that makes us giggle (and wiggle), even as we're horrified by it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

It says: “live people ignore the strange and unusual.”

I myself am…strange and unusual. My propensity for oddness and, some might say, questionable behavior, interests, and inclinations, began in the summer of 1984. I’m told I was a precious two year old, except one of my aunts was certainly frightened of me. You see, I used to growl at her. Nobody else. Just her, always her, never anything but...the growl. If she came within a certain range of where I was standing, sitting, or being held, I would emit a deep throaty growl. It is my theory that whatever caused this little quirk is also what is responsible for me blazing my trail through the darker side of the trees.

I was born and raised in a small town in the extreme northwestern part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan known as the Copper Country. I could do the ‘hands thing' if you ever bump into me face to face, but for now, you’ll have to wait with bated breath. An isolated rural life, particularly in an environment that has a rich and colorful history, tends to be fertile ground for the imagination. From a young age I’ve been a make believer. Trees that tell you where to find buried bones, secret portals to other worlds through the red security light on the lamppost at the end of my street, Freddy Krueger (complete with a red convertible!) living in the abandoned copper mill site beyond the cedar trees by my house, and the Devil’s brother jumping in my dad’s underwear on the clothesline are just a few of the yarns I used to spin for myself and others.

Along with ‘playing pretend’ and storytelling, I fell deeply madly in love with reading. The stranger the better. The more the scarier. The strict librarian at my school wouldn’t let me check out the scary books when I was in grade school without a permission slip from home. Thanks be to my hippie mom for happily signing the slip.

Years later, I still feel a lot like that same little girl. I still growl a little. I still walk on that dark side a smidge. As a children’s librarian with the DC Public Library system, I still have the same love of books, reading, and sharing stories. I hope to contribute to this blog by reviewing books you may have heard of and those that are easily borrowed from your local library. Beyond that, I hope to come up with some obscure titles that you may need to scour the used book shops, second-hand book sites, or your uncle’s basement (tell him its not good to keep his books there) to find. Despite the fact that this blog has a specific target audience, I think we can all benefit from it. Can’t all of us use a little dash of strangeness? Don’t we all get in the mood for a good scare?

Monday, August 3, 2009


---Enter if You Dare...

This is a blog for the strange at heart, children and adults, who share a love of books bizarre, scary, terrifying, odd and, well, spooky! We'll review books for children and young adults in a number of categories, including horror, science fiction and fantasy, and over time hope to develop a list of recommended reading for parents, children and teens. Of course there are a lot of things we'll figure out as we go along, and we welcome your suggestions!

---Why, Dear God Why?!

The idea for this site came as the result of a request from a good friend, who wanted help coming up with a reading list for three kids who share their mother's taste for (and pride in) the strange and unusual. I found it refreshing to see her sharing her passion for the bizarre with them, and realized that it would be great to see a resource for the next generation of horror enthusiasts; the ones not old enough to read hard-core scenes of evisceration but still get a rise from that tingling sensation that crawls up your spine when you enjoy a good scare, and the teens who come into the library, always asking for the latest books about vampires, ghosts and witches.

Essentially, younger versions of myself. Isn't that a terrifying thought?

---Who are You, and What are You Doing in My House?

I am a horror enthusiast and aspiring writer living in Washington, DC. I work in the public library system and am a full time student at the University of Maryland. I've written a number of short stories, two of which appeared in the 2006 edition of the TCC Channelmarker. Also, one of my plays has been performed onstage at the Alt Theater in Buffalo, NY. In my spare time... wait, I don't really have any spare time; nevermind!

---What's Around that Corner?

The future of this blog is a mystery. Over time, I hope to develop a regular posting schedule, and add a few helpers to get things moving. That said, your comments, critiques, arguments and suggestions are more than welcome. Comments will be moderately lightly for content (this is a blog about children's books, after all), but otherwise, please share feedback so I can improve the site in turn.

Thank you for visiting, and reading this, and I hope to see you all again... very soon.....