The Amber Spyglass
by Philip Pullman
Published by Knopf
518 pages, 2000
Cat's Eye Corner
by Terry Griggs
Published by Raincoast Books
163 pages, 2000
When Night Eats the Moon
by Joanne Findon
Published by Red Deer Press
175 pages, 2000
by Peggy Tibbetts
Published by Press-Tige
98 pages, 2000
by Wendy A. Lewis
Published by Red Deer Press
189 pages, 2000
The Creak on the Stairs
Reviewed by Monica Stark
Kids like things that are scary. This is something that parents of the youngest toddler know and understand. The classic "airplane ride" that a parent gives a child -- spinning the child about while the earth's own forces keep her horizontal and partially aloft -- is really about that very thing. It's frightening to be spun in such a fashion. Exciting. Exhilarating. Yet, ultimately, without risk. The child understands that the parent won't let go. The child trusts. When fiction for young adults or children is intended -- at least in part -- to frighten, the child trusts that the author will do so in an honorable manner: justice will be done, wrongs will be made right and heroes will be delivered intact. It's part of the understanding.
In some ways, these are the restrictions of writing "exhilarating" material for young people. Part of the pact, if you will. J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame understands this very well. Even the darkest of her stories are somewhat moral tales and her young readers understand in advance that Harry and his pals will be delivered from their misadventures relatively unscathed.
David Almond, author of Kit's Wilderness and other award-winning children's stories, has a very good handle on this as well. His tales lack some of the levity of Rowling's, but possess at least as much of the fright factor. Kit's Wilderness is one of the most frightening children's books I've ever read, but the darkness is beautifully handled and perfectly delivered.
Of late, a lot of noise has been made about Philip Pullman's series, "His Dark Materials." At press time, the third and final installment in the series, The Amber Spyglass is edging even Potter off the bestseller lists: no mean feat. While the intent of Pullman's series is not merely to frighten, there are certain dark elements: not surprising from the man who brought us I Was A Rat!, though -- in all honesty -- the charm and levity so apparent in that book is not at all apparent here. If one were forced to compare, you could say that "His Dark Materials" is sort of The Hobbit meets Harry Potter, though without the deep humor so apparent in both Tolkien and Rowling's work.
In a valley shaded with rhododendrons, close to the snow line, where a stream milky with meltwater splashed and where doves and linnets flew among the immense pines, lay a cave, half-hidden by the crag above and the stiff heavy leaves that clustered below.
The Amber Spyglass is vast and engrossing, though likely a little too challenging for younger readers or those lacking a certain intellectual sophistication. Those that have read the earlier two in the trilogy -- The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife -- will want to know that at the beginning of the third book, we find out who captured Lyra in Book II. Perhaps most importantly, it was good to find that book three was neither a let down or a setup. Pullman brings his challenging saga to a logical -- though surprising -- conclusion.
Terry Griggs' latest novel, Cat's Eye Corner, owns some of that necessary humor. Better known as the author of fiction for adults -- including the Governor General's Award nominated Quickening -- Cat's Eye Corner is a cheery and welcome departure for this talented author. Olivier has gone to visit his grandfather and his new "step-step-stepgramma," his third wife, Sylvia de Whosit. When Olivier's parents found out about the marriage, they exclaimed, "in capitals -- OH NO! NOT THAT WITCH! -- making no secret of their feelings." Though Olivier initially supposes that his parents meant it in the least complimentary -- and not the real -- way, upon meeting her and staying in her weirdly odd house, Cat's Eye Corner, he begins to wonder if his parents weren't right the first time.
"Sylvia, look who's come for dinner!"
In the hands of accomplished wordsmith Griggs, Cat's Eye Corner is a cheerful minuet; she leaps deftly through her story with a great deal of fun and some enviable wordworking. A charming and memorable book.
Celtic scholar Joanne Findon employs a completely different style of wordsmithing in When Night Eats the Moon, Findon's first novel; though she is the author of two picture books, The Dream of Aengus and Auld Lang Syne. In When Night Eats the Moon we meet 13-year-old Holly, whose feuding parents have dumped her with her aunt and uncle -- and an unpleasant cousin named Frederick -- in England while they go off to work out their marital difficulties. Treading with care for fear of giving away too much of Findon's carefully realized plot, Holly's flute sets off some curious resonances with an old barn that end up landing her in 700 BCE: smack in the middle of the Iron Age.
Rune-sticks, invaders, a spell gone wrong. Had she stumbled into a video game? No, this was too real for that. Holly's stomach clenched. The fog was thinning a little now, but there was no sign of the barn or the garage or Aunt Sally's house.
Though it's a fantastic tale, Findon tells her story matter-of-factly and with the clear touches of authenticity that one would expect considering the subject matter and Findon's own background. This is one that will intrigue the adult in your life with interest in Celtic lore as much as it will an older child.
There are more young people in motion in Carly's Ghost. This time it's 12-year-old Carly Baillie, newly moved into a cabin in the mountains with her mother, her father and her obnoxious older sister Jackie. And Jackie truly is obnoxious: as much of a bad guy as you commonly see in a children's book.
"I expect you and Jackie to cooperate. Or this will never work," Liz warned. "I need your support."
Soon after the move, Carly finds that her new home appears to be haunted, though -- of course -- none of her family members will believe her, least of all old doubting Jackie. Carly's Ghost is entertaining but all too brief and -- through that -- not as richly detailed as it could be. Tibbetts gets in, tells her story and then gets out and her characters suffer a loss of dimension through it, however there's certainly no time for lost attention or boredom.
By most anyone's definition, Wendy A. Lewis' first novel, Graveyard Girl, wouldn't fit into this compilation, but I found the title -- and, ultimately, the book -- irresistible. A collection of high school students reenacts the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1982, a year after the wedding took place. Through first person vignettes, Graveyard Girl meets the students at various points in their lives -- each from their own perspective -- while the mock royal wedding resonates through their consciousnesses.
In some ways, Graveyard Girl reads more like a cleverly connected short story collection than a novel, perhaps with a nod at master storyteller Ingo Schulze in his Simple Stories from earlier this year. Graveyard Girl is more successful, however, if for no other reason than Lewis seems to honestly have felt this was the best way to tell her story, unlike Schulze who left at least a bit of an impression of showboating and experimentation for the sake of experiment.
Graveyard Girl is definitely a read for older and more sophisticated teens: some of the threads are frightening simply in their reality.
Juan hits the wall right below me. I hear the thud. I feel the window shudder against my hands. But I don't hear Juan scream. What if he hit his head? His father strides over and yanks Juan to his feet. I see blood on Juan's face and head, but he's still conscious. He even looks at me and smiles a little. Don't worry, man. How can I not worry when his hulking father seems hell-bent on killing him?
Graveyard Girl is a coming of age novel: no wizards or warlocks here, Lewis' characters deal with birth and death and tough decisions.
Is it a little too much reality? Maybe. But Graveyard Girl's readers will ultimately decide. It strikes me as a groundbreaking novel, however, and I predict awards in the future for Lewis' book. | October 2000
Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.