While this is not technically a detective story, this book celebrates the creepy, the strange, the odd, the mysterious – still in keeping with our Whodunit Theme for May/June. There are also mysterious clues that can be found in each page (if one is able to decode the alliteration used by the author) and twists somewhere in the end. With a little stretch here and there, it should be good enough for our Mystery/Suspense special.
Word Play, Tongue Twisters, and Whimsical Alliterations. The ominous creepy feel of the book was established from the very first page:
It was the middle of the late hours, twelve fifty-nine to be precise. The winds howled outside, and the old house creaked-
Now I don’t know about you, but that seems to be the perfect setting for the mysterious and the strange. Everything about the house is ‘fairly normal’ except for a clock that gongs for a spooky number thirteen rather than just twelve.
The strength of the book lies in its unique combination of surreal black-and-white illustrations (quite reminiscent of The Nightmare before Christmas and a black and white version of Beetlejuice) – with word play that makes use of multi-syllabic words. Very young children would definitely be captivated by the illustrations but may have little idea what the words mean – this is where the parent or the teacher comes in to provide the children with a bit of help in vocabulary enrichment. The alliteration and tongue-twister quality of the narrative is evident here:
What is it? What is it? What makes the odd timer tick?? What’s that inside that swings and sways? Is it a peculiar pendulum with a precarious pivot? A mistimed metronome??? Nay! The old clock’s clockworks wound up to ticktock by means a bit more deranged, as bells 3 and 4 tolled and the mechanism in question hopped off its swing and ran away. Dreadfully dissonant and traumatically toned clanked the next three of thirteen o’clock’s chimes.
This is indeed a strange clock – while the narrator waxes lyrical about its dreadful sounding GONG, odd and creepy creatures slink and slither past the odd clock’s small door with each strike of the metronome. I am thinking that this book would be perfect for a read-aloud complete with gestures, vocables, and changes in voice quality for a more suspense-like feel to the narrative.
Inspired Illustrations. While I was not particularly taken with the twists and turns of the plot and the narrative style, I was awed by the illustrations, the fonts that burst out of the pages, and the way that everything is put together in a devilishly quirky way. I love love love these artistic styles that defy quick understanding with irregularly-shaped figures that border on the bizarre and surreal. Here are some of the photos that I particularly enjoyed. I hope you like them too.
About the Author. When I googled James Stimson, I discovered that he was part of the creative team that produced James and the Giant Peach and that he has worked extensively as a commercial illustrator in addition to being an illustrator for children’s books. If you wish to know more about him, his works, and his galaxy of eerie figures, click here to be taken to his website.
Thirteen O’Clock by James Stimson. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2005. Book borrowed from the Community Library
I was surprised to read that this is a new book, published in 2005, as with the complexity of the text I didn’t imagine it would penetrate today’s publishing norms for simplicity and paucity of words. I actually quite enjoy more complex writing in picture book, where appropriate, and if shared in the right way by an adult, children often rise to the challenge. The illustrations look wonderfully creepy!
Hi Joanna, yes it’s a fairly new book, and it is luscious. I was taken by the illustrations. I also enjoy books that do not tone down the writing style for children’s sake. Like you, I agree that if our expectations are quite high (albeit realistic too at the same time), children surprise us and rise up to the occasion. I suppose my reservation with the book is more of how the loose threads all come together in the end. Regardless, it IS a wonderful book. Amazing in its ingenuity.
I agree with the great illustrations. It does remind me a bit of Lane Smith’s work.
I am not sure what I think, but your review has me curious. I ordered this one from the library too. I think I may enjoy it more than my kids, but you never know.
Your link on the PB challenge actually took me to your Ace Lacewing post.
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