I have always been a huge fan of horror, suspense, and mystery in literature. I gravitate naturally towards slices of darkness found in the pages of a book. Last year, I was especially taken with several middle grade novels that featured this theme as seen in Jonathan Auxier’s immensely haunting The Night Gardener, Aaron Starmer’s dabbling with darknesses in parallel universes in The Riverman, and The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill. I am pleased to discover another title published this year that I will definitely add to our Mystereadventure theme.
Written by: Kenneth Oppel Illustrated by: Jon Klassen
Published by: Simon & Schuster, 2015
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.
Steve is the oldest of three children. His younger sister, Nicole, seems oblivious to the tension that filled their home since their youngest brother, Theodore was born with a congenital defect that requires multiple hospital visits, surgeries, and constant vigilance. The young Steve is left pretty much on his own to make sense of the inexplicable and inevitable, and to soothe his own anxiety in the face of uncertainty, strange dreams, and the blurring of reality and make-believe.
Jon Klassen’s art made me compare the book to Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls as Steve’s fear has likewise wrought the existence of an otherworldly creature – whom he initially mistook for an angel, then realized to be the Queen of the Wasps – who appears to Steve in his dream. This notion of a reified disquietude that entails bargaining with an eerie unknown to make things ‘better’ no matter what it takes – cuts to the very heart of this novel.
“‘Yes’ is a very powerful word. It’s like opening a door. It’s like fanning a flame. It’s the most powerful word in the world.”
The queen was maddening, the way she talked, the way words poured out of her and spiraled around.
“But you’re still not telling me –“
“‘Yes’ means yes and everything that entails. We’ll finish the baby, and you’ll go into his room one morning and there he’ll be, and he’ll be healthy and it’ll be like the old one was never there.” (pp. 130-131)
What exactly does it entail for one to be “normal” and to be whole again was also explored quite fittingly and beautifully in this novel, in a way that young readers can easily resonate with.
Sometimes we really aren’t supposed to be the way we are. It’s not good for us. And people don’t like it. You’ve got to change. You’ve got to try harder and do deep breathing and maybe one day take pills and learn tricks so you can pretend to be more like other people. Normal people. But maybe Vanessa was right, and all those other people were broken too in their own ways. Maybe we all spent too much time pretending we weren’t. (p. 117)
While there were elements of the novel that I was able to anticipate – such as the initially sinister presence of the man who stands at the foot of young Steve’s bed – and the links between Mr. Nothing and the “Knife Guy” with four fingers in each hand – the twists in the storyline remain quick-paced with just the right amount of goosebumps-inducing fear, which may be especially salient if you read this very late at night while everyone else is asleep.
While there is that evident presence of evil that masks itself as a seemingly-benevolent creature that, in truth, does nothing but prey on one’s fears and feed off one’s anxieties – there is also Steve’s unswervingly good intentions, Nicole’s almost-careless innocence made all the more radiant in its quiet simple faith, and love for family that embraces brokenness and imperfections. I anticipate that this will win quite a number of awards next year. Find it and give this to your young readers with a taste for horror and mystery. For teachers who wish to use this in the classroom, here is a link to Simon and Schuster’s Reading Group Guide that you may want to go through with your students.