Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Scary Stories Curing Stage Fright?

Scary Readers Theatre
by Suzanne I. Barchers

Libraries Unlimited, 1994

In my days as a children’s librarian and as mentor to early readers I started to come across articles and happen into conversations about Reader’s Theatre. While I’ve heard of the concept before as another mode for actors to express themselves, blocking and performing with scripts instead of memorizing lines, I hadn’t known much about it as a device for education. Looking through listservs I started to see more and more use of reader’s theatre as a way for children to practice reading aloud in a nonthreatening, fun way. Not only that, the concept helps foster reading comprehension, as oftentimes children are given the freedom to take an existing story and adapt it to suit their interpretation or interests. Exercises such as this can help develop strong narrative skills. I think this type of set up can do wonders for the reluctant reader, those wishing to enhance their writing skills (through adapting a story), as well as the shy public speaker. Without the threat of forgetting lines, with encouragement from teachers and librarians, and with plenty of opportunities to practice, get creative, and to explore, I think Reader's Theatre is a positive way to promote literacy among youth.

This being a scary books blog I just had to find out if there were books out there, with an odd or spooky twist, that followed the principles of reader’s theatre. I was looking to see if there was a book that was suitable for school age children and one that gave them opportunities for freedom of expression through writing, creating/adapting scripts, dramatic expression, etc. I couldn’t find anything at my local library but through my university library I found an electronic resource for Scary Readers Theatre by Suzanne I. Barchers. I was stoked to find a scary book that was specifically designed for a reader’s theatre project. This book provided scripted adaptations of 30 popular scary stories, myths, multinational folktales, and urban legends. Due to the methodical nature of the scripts, sometimes the stories seemed a bit dry and unappealing. Hopefully, in such instances, this is where a child could unleash their creativity to save the story by employing an interesting vocal tactic or modifying the flow of the text. This book employed a rating system of scary, scarier, and scariest and it seemed to have a good mix of stories on all levels for elementary and middle school age children. I think this book was a good first find for a reader’s theater piece, especially since it takes away the pressure of script adaptation. In that sense, the work is already done for you. This book is a great start, but I hope there is more out there. If not, we need to make some! These types of books are great to help encourage literacy, with a spooky bent, in schools, libraries, and after-school programs.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Nice Spot of Ink to Cure What Ails You

The Ink Drinker

by Eric Sanvoisen
Illustrated by Martin Matje

Random House Books for Young Readers, 2002

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the blog has been inactive since summertime. While we all truly love this blog, it is a labor of love that sometimes has to take the backseat to other calls of duty, be they work, school, fighting the zombie invasion, etc. That being said, I just couldn’t let October slip by without a post or two. If there was ever a time for some spooky reading, it has to be October. Here is my first selection to kick off some reading before Halloween!

One thing that I often struggled with when I was working as a Children’s Librarian was getting the reluctant reader to embrace reading. How do you motivate a child that says to you they simply don’t like reading?

After many creative strategies, I think suggesting this book could be another welcome tactic. The Ink Drinker by Eric Sanvoisen is an early chapter book suitable for 8-10 year olds. The tale, originally published in France, is mildly horrible, more bizarre than scary, so it is palatable to a wide audience from those who love vampire tales to those who love silly stories and/or strangeness.

The book begins with a simple and cruel irony. A boy who despises books with a book loving father finds himself stuck in his father’s book shop for the summer. The pain, the sorrow, the agony of being forced to work in a bookstore all summer is more than our protagonist can stand. To pass the time he hides in the shop, daydreams, and people watches. One day he notices a very odd customer. The customer, a pale stranger, practically floating (is he floating?) delicately carries a straw and slips it between the pages of books and slurps. The boy’s horrified gasp causes the stranger to flee. Upon inspection of the volume the stranger held the boy notices that all the pages have been wiped (drank?) clean of any ink, except just a letter or two. Shocked, yet painfully curious, the boy rushes after the stranger into the cemetery where he discovers Draculink, the ink drinking vampire. As the book unfolds the boy finds himself on a journey to explain the mysterious nature of ink drinking. When his father catches him drinking ink the reader realizes just how first-hand the boy’s journey has become.

The quick narrative, the accompanying illustrations, and the elegant strangeness of this tale prove to be strong temptations that would hook any reader. In addition to being a great standalone book, I was happy to learn this title is the first in a full Ink Drinker series. Hopefully this quirky vampire tale can get you in the Halloween spirit. Stay tuned for more upcoming posts!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Social Ghost

The Space Between Trees
by Katie Williams
Chronicle Books

The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams follows the story of a quiet, quirky loner. Evie, a girl raised by her divorced mother, is sixteen with a paper route and every bit the lonely outcast. Awkward in school, not fitting in, she hovers on the periphery observing and fantasizing desired interactions. Her crush, college guy Jonah, seems to be her only source of social hope.

The day that Evie does her paper route near the woods is the same day that Jonah does his job, which is collecting animal carcasses in the woods for animal control. One delivery day Evie is in the wrong place at the wrong time when Jonah discovers a human body in the woods. In a cruel twist, the murdered girl ends up to be Evie’s childhood friend, Elizabeth. It’s a lonely world when not your only friend, but your only former friend, is pulled lifeless from the woods. At the funeral, when Evie lies about the depth of her friendship with Elizabeth, she sets the stage for a very complex dynamic between her, Elizabeth’s father and Elizabeth’s best friend, Hadley. In a strange courtship, Hadley and Evie join forces to discover who the killer is. In a blend of lies, teenage escapades, and frazzled emotions Evie sinks deeper into an increasingly dangerous situation. The story slowly builds to a violent climax, causing Evie to realize what she was after all along.

As it happens, I had very high hopes for this book. The jacket reads like a thrilling murder mystery with an unlikely cast of characters. The book design is a stunning piece of die-cut craftsmanship, very elegant and haunting. The title was intriguing to me, the lonely clearing among massive, strong beings. This space between trees is the growing void of loneliness, isolation, and rejection inside a there-but-never-seen young girl. Evie’s stories, her thoughts, and her hopes stand separately from her bodily action and inaction. Evie is the ghost in the machine, the silent partner to a life unfolding everyway but that which she hoped. A phantasm, alienated from her peers and even those she thinks are friends, in life and in death. Basically, I had to read this book.

As Evie set the tone for her involvement in a devolving situation, so I set myself up for major literary disappointment. The bones of this story have huge potential to take the narrative to a greater place. Unfortunately, I think the story fell short. The author was often telling us how Evie felt instead of writing it so we would experience those feelings with her. As an example, the moment, post climax in the story, where Evie confronts Hadley in the hospital room, should have been an epic scene. Instead, flat observations and a dull dialogue reign in one of the key ending phases of the book. As a reader, I felt cheated. Stories that move us are those that allow us to get swept into and become one with the emotional thread in the story. This book is written in the first-person perspective, so when Evie feels something, anything, I want to feel it through her, organic and natural as she feels it herself. Instead, this story left me with the sense of an out of body experience, like those dreams when you are silently watching yourself from above and outside. I felt very disconnected to this book.

Not seeing the forest for the trees?

Another gripe is the tidy package readers receive at the end of the story. The equivalent of a fairy tale happily ever after, this book takes the easy way out explaining what happens to everyone. The prince married the young maid, they had a dozen babies, had a sprawling mansion by the sea while Evie gains perspective and every major plot point is hastily resolved, the end. I don’t want to create any story spoilers, but I will simply say the last few chapters were a big let down.

While the general theme of this book was on the right track, a coming of age tale, a suspenseful conflict, ultimately, I think this story is forgettable. As far as YA fiction goes, it has many of the key components that make compelling stories but I don’t think these elements were incorporated or utilized to the best effort. I’ve read good reviews for this book and other Katie Williams short stories, but for me The Space Between Trees needed a little more time to grow. Please feel free to read yourself and post opposing viewpoints. I may have been absent in my reading, causing me to miss the essential essence of this story.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Kids are Alright.... or Are They?

Monster Tales: Vampires, Werewolves, & Things
edited by Roger Elwood

New York: Rand McNally & Company, 1973

One of the creepier horror anthologies I read during my elementary school years was Monster Tales: Vampires, Werewolves, and Things. Assembled by horror/fantasy author Roger Elwood (who would edit numerous anthologies featuring tons of up-and-coming authors of the '70s), with bizarre and haunting illustrations by Franz Altschuler, this collection provided me many a sleepless night.

The introduction is written by Robert Bloch (known for writing Psycho, among other prolific contributions to the horror genre), who vividly describes the true horror of what lies in the dark, behind the shadows, and in our imaginations. There are six stories in this book highlighting encounters with supernatural forces drawn from folklore. As noted in the title, the book is divided into three categories: Vampires ("Precious Bodily Fluids"), Werewolves ("Werewolf Boy") and Things ("Wendigo's Child", "Torchbearer", "The Call of the Grave" and "The Vrkolak").

The uniting concept of this anthology is the fact that each story has a young main character whose parental figures are powerless to protect them from the forces of darkness, be they human or supernatural. "Wendigo's Child" details the horrible events begun by a curious boy who disrupts an Indian burial ground by stealing a mummified creature; "Torchbearer" follows a young man who is sold by his father to a sinister Count who practices witchcraft; "The Call of the Grave" recalls the narrator's childhood in Wales where calling on the dead after a mining accident yields horrible repercussions; in "Werewolf Boy" the title character makes a pact with a witch who will transform him into a wolf to avenge the death of his puppy at the teeth of a local Baron's dogs; "Precious Bodily Fluids" involves a strain of vampirism that haunts a boy and his father in a crumbling ancestral home; and "The Vrkolak" ends things on a more humorous note with a disgruntled summer camper who turns himself into a giant frog-like creature to get back at bullies.

What I like about the stories in this collection is that most of them drive home the fear of the unknown without implying that everything has returned to normal at the end.
Each tale has a cadence in the writing style that evokes a sense of unease. Franz Altschuler's illustrations have a jarring peculiarity to them that complements the narrative similar to Stephen Gammell's work for the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. While each story is effective in its own way, the ones that stuck out for me were "Torchbearer" and "Precious Bodily Fluids."

"Around the man at the stake were perhaps forty or fifty hideous, loathsome figures. Human Beings? Men? Women? Ghosts? Creatures of the netherworld?" - Arthur Tofte, Torchbearer
"Torchbearer" is particularly interesting because it deals with the question of evil without adhering to the immediate assumptions readers might have. Rolfe is sold to the Count Monterrant, a sinister nobleman whose castle is a sanctuary to the deformed outcasts of France. His job is to carry the torch to light the passages and help out the witch who lives in the underground rooms. Rolfe witnesses a graphic ritual where a Magistrate responsible for the torture and deaths of innocents accused of witchcraft is condemned to a hellish inferno for his misdeeds. This scene plays out with chilling drama that hints of Poe's narratives. Mayhem ensues and Rolfe is left to ponder which is more blasphemous, a group of outcasts who use witchcraft as a cloak of protection against an ignorant political structure or the banal cruelty practiced by the church against anyone who stood in their way.

"As the old caretaker quietly left Michael's room, the young boy couldn't help but notice how much the old man looked like a skeleton, withered and almost dead, yet still alive." - Mario Martin, Jr., Precious Bodily Fluids

"Precious Bodily Fluids" brings the vampire of legend into a more modern setting. Michael and his father go to a rural English village to move into the ancestral estate previously owned by his uncle. They are greeted by Mr. Gaskell, the creepy caretaker of the crumbling castle. The discovery of his Uncle's morbid scientific research coupled with the fact that his father grows weaker by the day (as Mr. Gaskell appears younger) tips Michael off to the danger that he is in. The power of this tale lies in the unsettling feeling Michael is left with when he realizes that he is alone against a
Lamia (a creature who lives off the bodily fluids of humans and animals), and his father is powerless to help him.

I would recommend this book to young readers who enjoy scary stories rooted in folklore. Like the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Short and Shivery collections, each tale feels as though it is being read to you near a campfire or fireplace on a dark and stormy night.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Tick Tock, Tick Tock

The House With a Clock in Its Walls
John Bellairs
The Dial Press, 1973
Puffin Books, 1993

The House With a Clock in Its Walls is the first in a glorious and mysterious series by John Bellairs. Having read this book as a child and then recently again as an adult I have to say the gothic bones of this story have allowed it to stand the test of the decades that have passed since it was first published.

The story, along with the whole series, follows the adventures of Lewis Barnavelt. In House the book opens with Lewis moving to the fictional town of New Zebedee, Michigan, more specifically into a sprawling Victorian mansion with his odd yet loveable uncle Jonathan. Overtime, Lewis comes to realize his uncle and his uncle’s friend Florence Zimmerman dabble in the dark arts; Jonathan a fledgling wizard and Florence a powerful yet cautious witch. As if being bathed in the spectacle of magic mirrors, light-hearted displays of illusion, and wizardry wasn’t fascinating enough, Lewis is quickly confronted with the evil side of such powers when he learns about the previous owners of the house, the cunning and sinister Isaac and Selenna Izard. Before his death, the power hungry (criminally insane?) Isaac constructed a hidden enchanted clock within the walls of the New Zebedee home. The device, meant to align the cosmos in such a way to allow Izard’s magic to obliterate the world, eternally ticks in an attempt to carry out Izard’s evil plan, even from beyond the grave. The story builds and an escalating series of ghostly encounters climaxes into a stunning finish which will encourage readers on to the next book in the series.

The glory of this story rests not only in the wonderful writing and the supernatural/magical elements of the plot, but also in the quiet and relatable nature of the characters. Lewis Barnavelt, who is perhaps like his maker John Bellairs and countless others, is a self-conscious yet curious boy, eager to find friends, but more comfortable reading and crunching cookies. Oft being the last boy picked for the baseball team, if picked at all, can lead to an overpowering sense of desperation which is all too human. Unfortunately, it is such desperation which often leads to horrifying results, particularly in a supernatural type book. One of the threads of the story follows Lewis as he befriends, struggles to keep, and ultimately loses his friend Tarby. When we see Lewis try to raise the dead in the cemetery to impress Tarby we feel his overwhelming sense of loneliness, knowing that whether or not his incantation works, he’s probably lost Tarby anyway. I think seeing Lewis vulnerable and exposed, stripped bare spiritually, allows us to really see Lewis. Being so close to him makes this story even greater than it already is.

As if I couldn’t love this book enough, the illustrations are masterfully created by the late Edward Gorey. In true Gorey style, the character of his illustrations, which he self-described as literary nonsense (the class of such as Lewis Carroll), fit perfectly with the tone of the story. Dark, mysterious, subtle yet awful (in imagery, not construct) the pictures in this book are so breathtakingly beautiful that it further accentuates what a wonderful literary gift this book, and series, is to readers of all ages. I highly recommend this book for middle grade readers, and even teens and adults who want another chance to solve the mysteries of their youth and visit the haunts of their childhood. We all have them, I’m quite sure.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Gossip Girl in the Shell, part I

Skinned -and- Crashed
by Robin Wasserman

New York: Simon Pulse, 2008 and 2009

Skinned and Crashed are the first two parts of an intriguing new teen-cyberpunk trilogy by Robin Wasserman, which follows the postmodern cyberpunk identity crisis of a young girl whose life is rapidly destroyed by the technology that saved her in the aftermath of a car crash.

Lia Kahn is the rich, white, blond-haired, blue-eyed ubermadchen daughter of an upper upper class family. Lia goes to the most exclusive school, surrounded by the most exclusive friends, and access to the most exclusive technology available in a story set in a distopian future world still recovering from the horror of nuclear fallout. Lia has everything genetic engineering can provide: perfect looks, perfect mind, perfect life. She and her friends define culture, and walk in luxury.

Like this, but with better wi-fi.

Then the worst happens; Lia's body is destroyed in a freak car crash, forcing her parents to have her mind downloaded into an advanced prosthetic body made to resemble a human being as closely as possible. The story begins with Lia waking up, and follows her through the horror of losing everything she has ever had, and ever been.

In Skinned, Lia and her family are forced to confront the reality of her new situation. Has Lia truly been saved, or is she merely a facsimile of a girl who is now dead? Like all the best stories, the book provides no real answers. In Lia's world, Faith is a quaint concept held only by the delusional, and Lia herself has been raised to believe only in power and will. In fact, she and her family are terrifyingly fascist, and her father has raised her on Nazi slogans; literally, his motto is "work will set you free" - the words written over the gates of Auschwitz.

"Arbeit Macht Frei" = "Work Will Set You Free"

After the accident, Lia's connection with family and friends breaks down in a series of revelations which drive Lia away from her life and into the company of a group of fellow "skinners", other teens who've been downloaded (voluntarily or not) and exist outside of human society.

Some of the themes dealt with in this book are staples of modern cyberpunk and culture. Lia's friends' revulsion is tied to the "not-quite" effect, known as the uncanny valley, in which people are repulsed when confronted by something that very closely resembles a human face, but isn't quite there. This effect is the reason some recent CGI movies and video games haven't fared as well as expected; people just freak out when they see something close (but just not) human.

Feel that chill? That's the Uncanny Valley

As the people around Lia attack or abandon her, Lia herself is forced to deal with the loss of what she has always believed to be "herself". No longer able to "feel" as she once did, Lia experiences a series of emotional responses which are sneakily reminiscent of the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and (ultimately) acceptance. In the process, Lia comes to realize that she no longer belongs in the life she once led. By the end of Skinned, she has literally been stripped bare, and discards the identity of the girl whose life she has failed to replicate.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Outer Darkness is a Delicacy!

The Monster Who Ate Darkness
by Joyce Dunbar; illustrated by Jimmy Liao
Cambridge, Mass. : Candlewick Press, 2008.

Move over, Shoggoth, here comes... The Monster Who Ate Darkness is a charming tale about a horrible little creature from under a little boy's bed, who eats all of the darkness in the universe, leaving nothing but a wasteland of stark, unforgiving light in its wake. Thankfully, the story has a happy ending, but not until many adorable tears have been shed.

Jo-Jo is terrified of darkness, fearing that there are monsters lurking in the shadows and beneath his bed. Naturally there is one; just a speck of a thing who is cute and cuddly and not at all terrifying when we first meet him. The Monster is hungry, and soon discovers that the only thing that will satisfy his appetite is darkness (note: "darkness sandwiches" = best lunch ever). So he does Jo-Jo a favor, and starts devouring all the darkness in the room.

You got nothin'!

However, his hunger is so immense that he ends up eating all the darkness, everywhere, disrupting the natural order of things and leaving all the animals confused. The monster becomes lonely, lost on a far planet in the stark light of an empty universe, until he hears Jo-Jo weeping in the distance, unable to sleep for lack of darkness. The monster returns to the boy, and holds him, singing him a "darkness lullaby" (which I imagine must sound something like this). As the darkness oozes out of a cone in his head, he shrinks back down as Jo-Jo falls asleep in his arms, until finally the story closes with the boy sleeping with the now-tiny monster nestled in his arms.

This story can be appreciated on a number of psychological levels. For one, it turns nighttime into an adventure; still full of monsters, but comforting in its own way. So, definitely a bedtime story for the kids who don't want to stop believing, but still need a decent night's sleep. The monster isn't evil, just hungry and oblivious, which makes his antics adorable even as he pulls the stars down from the sky. Jo-Jo, meanwhile, restores the natural order of things by embracing his inner darkness (thus, a supervillain is born! haha...). The illustrations are equally enchanting, in many ways telling a story all their own. Artist Jimmy Liao has a talent for drawing the cute with the horrible in the same breath, and the monster is truly a blend of both as he transforms from a kittenish little mite to a bloated monstrosity (also cute), and back again.

A Little Like This...


On a side note, I came across this interesting quote from the Q&A section on Joyce Dunbar's website:

"There's also too much cuteness for my liking. I write cute stories myself but this reflects what publishers accept rather than my range as a writer. But this really is a golden age of children's books and you can't expect to publish only the best."

This is part of Dunbar's response to a question about whether she had any complaints as a writer, about publishing and about being a children's author. I personally feel that it speaks to the sort of stories we like to talk about, here at SB/SC; things that break out of the mold, and might be a little frightening, provocative or challenging than what we typically find on the children's shelves of libraries and bookstores, things that are thrilling, and maybe a little more dangerous than cute.

More Dangerous than Cute

The things that make a story compelling are not always things that are comforting, and I worry at times that many of us shy too quickly from introduction our children (or the children around us) to fear in tiny doses. Not that I think we should go around scaring the tuna salad out of toddlers just to see them cry, but an important element in facing fear is the consequential feeling of empowerment we are left with afterwards, once we realize that we have outlived our momentary fear and become stronger for its passing. Children learn more than mere vocabulary from the stories we give them, they learn to live with complexity, ambiguity, distress; and in the end, maybe, they learn to sleep at night by holding the things they were once terrified of closest to their hearts.

PS: If you're looking for more about The Monster Who Ate Darkness, there's a great, thought-provoking review in The New York Times. Enjoy!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Tails, You're It

The Tailypo: A Ghost Story
Told by Joanna C. Galdone
Sandpiper, 1984

Using a misappropriated or a stolen item to build the suspense in a story is a common one in scary books for youth. A character either purposely or unwittingly comes into possession of an item, article, or appendage and the rightful owner of said item, article, or appendage slowly but certainly seeks revenge. Sometimes this revenge is with not so savory results. This storytelling framework is the one employed in a classic children’s scary picture book called The Tailypo: A Ghost Story. Whether or not this is an actual ghost story or just a scary story (for I feel the creature seeking its tail is not necessarily a ghost) can be debated, but nonetheless, this is a smooth and suspenseful tale for young schoolchildren.

The story opens with a lone woodsy cabin. We meet our main character, an elderly man, who lives a hermit-like existence deep in the forest with his three hounds. He lives simply and self-sufficiently. He seems to be a worn out shadow of a once rugged woodsman, the type that is honest, not inclined to superstition, and hearty to the core. After he hears a strange creature in the woods and scratching outside, and eventually in his own cabin, the woodsman strikes out to abolish the creature but instead only cuts off the creature's tail; his tailypo. From this point onward the tale crescendos with the creature calling out in a spooky verse for his tailypo until we fall upon a silent, yet telling scene in the final pages.

The Tailypo is a classic example of a spooky American folktale. The setting, the characters, the tone, and the illustrations are evocative of Appalachia or the Tetons. The rhythm of the tale makes it a great read aloud and storytelling piece. I would venture to guess, since versions of this story have been told for decades, that the first author of this tail didn't see Zombieland. The rules created by Columbus for zombie invasions definitely apply here. Had our woodsman executed rule #4, the doubletap, on our frightening critter instead of just chopping off his tale we would end up with a cheerful woodsman donning a tailypo skin cap and lounging with his hounds instead of an empty cabin and a possibly still at large demonic being roaming the forested mountain range. Well, in any event, it is a delightful little spooky story.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Children in the Aftermath

The Pack
by Tom Pow

New Milford, CT: Roaring Brook Press, 2006, ©2004

Tom Pow's The Pack is like a children's primer for Cormac McCarthy. It is a story of desperation and identity, set in a bleak, post apocalyptic setting which is just recognizable enough to be truly disturbing even to veteran fans of the genre. This book occupies a nebulous place between childrens' and young adult literature; though it is ostensibly about children, its themes are somewhat more mature than typical juvenile fiction. Pow's writing style does not coddle his readers, whatever their age, and the subject matter is starker still.

The story in The Pack centers around three feral, orphan children living with wild dogs on the edge of what's left of civilization. The children are named after the storefronts they were found in front of, Bradley, Victor and Floris (the 't' was broken), while the dogs are meaningfully named Hunger, Fearless and Shelter. The pack survives under the tutelage of an old woman, whose stories teach them to retain the last shreds of their humanity. When Floris is kidnapped by a local warlord, the rest are forced into a quest to save her, for their own sakes as well as hers.

There are two reasons that this book is best for advanced readers: one, the story is written in a tone of unflinching brutality, devoid of comfort or ease; two, the literary eloquence of the book, while beautiful, can also be abstract in the extreme, and requires a well-developed sense of reading comprehension. The brutality comes in several forms; one of the crucial turns in the plot centers around a pair of dog fights, described in graphic detail, and several times during the story, characters defend some atrocious behavior by claiming it was necessary to survive.

As for literary abstraction, the main character, Bradley, explicitly follows the form of the Hero's Journey. Though the term itself is never directly invoked, the constant references to stories and dreams (not to mention the narrative style) make it clear that this is the form the pack's movements take. Also, the question of identity is brought into play, as is the barrier between human and animal, boy and girl, civilization and collapse. Finally, there is a level of social commentary which I won't describe in detail, because it is integral to the "big reveal" at the end of the book. Suffice it to say, the Invisible City and its surrounding Zones bear a shocking resemblance to the world as it already is, placed in a smaller sandbox and given a different context.

To what extent the childrens' world is actually "post apocalyptic", in the traditional sense, is never made perfectly clear beyond vague allusions to the "Dead Times". By the end of The Pack, the nature of the world these children live in is less defined than it was at the beginning, and that mystery is part of its charm. In the words of the old woman, repeated as a refrain throughout the book, the world is made of dust and ashes, but stories cannot crumble, burn or be broken.