Monday, October 29, 2007

What You Should Be Reading This Halloween

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you this: I have not read the Harry Potter books. I just haven't. I read about half of the first one and just...didn't....finish. Sorry. I'm sure they're very good books. I'm glad you like them and I really should read them. It's not you, it's me. But I have an excellent reason and that reason is John Bellairs.

Long before your boy Harry was but a twinkle in J.K. Rowling's (filthy, filthy rich) eye, Bellairs's boy heroes like Lewis Barnavelt and Johnny Dixon were sneaking through Gothic mansions and dusty libraries and secret tombs, their flashlights, coded maps, and ancient spell books in hand. And, lo, it was wonderful. (If you aren't familiar with his work, John Bellairs wrote a series of young adult Gothic mysteries, published between 1973 and the early 90's, that were usually set in mid-century New England. More about him over here.)

I think I started reading these books in middle school after discovering them in the youth section of my small town library and being instantly drawn to the Edward Gorey covers and illustrations. (Edward Gorey Side Note: Occasionally, when allowed to stay up a bit late, I would catch the animated Gorey opening to Mystery! on PBS and think excellent! this should be really, really spooky only to discover the ensuing program was just British people talk talk talking and driving around in the countryside a lot and where were the warlocks? and how about some ghosts, at least? and where the heck were the mysteries, exactly? and I'm going to bed.)

And even better than the illustrations were the stories. The stories had all the right things: creepy atmosphere, obscure historical references, truly evil villains, dangerous expeditions carried out by normal kids, grown-ups that just wouldn't believe said kids knew that the fate of the mortal world was hanging in the balance, etc. This was addictive stuff. I used to consume each book in a few days, pushing through chapter after chapter, staying up late into the night on the sly, leaning down to the foot of my bed, catching the pool of amber light from the hallway just so, quietly slipping the book under my quilt if a parent was coming, lying in the dark with the crap slightly scared out of me by whatever I'd just read.

And this was not sissy stuff. The stories were genuinely scary. For example: go read the plot synopsis for The Curse of the Blue Figurine. I'll wait right here.

See? That's scary, right? (Priest joke omitted.)

For me, growing up in a small, sun-drenched, Idaho agricultural town, these books were pure escapism. There was a painful lack of Gothic American castles in my neck of the woods. And no woods, for that matter. I so dearly wanted to find a mysterious talisman in a church pew. A yellowed map, inscribed with hieroglyphics and Masonic symbols, maybe? How's about a cursed signet ring? Even the public library that introduced me to these books in the first place was an enormous disappointment. The libraries in Bellairs's books always had an Occult section tucked away in some dimly-lit basement, while my library had a really extensive, well-lit Lewis & Clark section and an embarrassing amount of romance paperbacks.

And I think, because these books so powerfully captured my imagination as an impressionable young thing, there just wasn't enough room in my heart so many years later when that Harry Potter boy came along. Sorry, J.K. I belong to another, and I don't think you need the cash.

So, in summation, read John Bellairs's books. Start with The House with a Clock in its Walls. If you have or know older kids, check out or buy these books and read them together. But don't buy the new editions because the cover illustrations suck. And read the books at night. Maybe on the sly. Especially when it's stormy.

And if you do read them, or have read them, tell me about it, and our nerdy Bellairs love will shine for the whole Internet to see.


Mrs. G. said...

I will look for some older copies of these on Ebay. I'm always looking for good scary books for kids. I would hesitate to put one on my class booklist because it is so easy to offend someone about something: evil sorcery, the word damn, blatant disrespect to authority...all the things I love. I may even have to pull Phillip Pullman's Golden Compass off my fall list because, with the movie coming out, there's a lot of hub bub that he's supposedly an atheist and blah, blah. Anyone, long comment, but thanks for the rec.

Byron Brisbane Folwell said...

It was Bellairs that first turned your eye away...and then later, toward me. Do you remember? Johnny Dixon's friend Byron... slow, lanky, not particularly equipped to handle wizards. You judged me at first, thinking me to be, also, incapable of dealing with sorcery. and then, one day you discovered that I, too, was raised on Bellairs. And I could see it in your eye, the flip of your hair. You liked me, FINALLY.

see you there! said...

So glad I caught this post. I have a GD in the 5th grade and I don't think she's discovered Bellair. I know I haven't. She's done HP and is pretty much over him.

I'm going to see what I can find and then invite her to spend the night. We should have fun.


Melanie said...

Mrs. G: Definitely look these up! I think you'd really like them. Public libraries usually have the old Gorey hardcovers.

And you are absolutely right...I'm sure these books would offend the pants right off many. I think they are pretty dark, even relative to Harry Potter. But, like Harry Potter, there is lots of good vs. evil allegory that I think is really important. Just as there is sweetness, light, and bunny rabbits, there is hard, difficult, horrible crap in the world. Kids that age need to feel like they can vanquish their worst fears, overcome horrible people and events, and they can do that vicariously through these kinds of heroes.

But, if you're into monkeys and gin, I think these books are just fine.

Byron: You are a loon, and your nerdy Bellairs love is shining just a bit too brightly. I hope your clients don't find this site.

Darla: Great! Although they are listed for grades 9-12 (??), I think I started reading these as a fifth grader. I would recommend starting with either The House with a Clock in its Walls or The Curse of the Blue Figurine. I hope you enjoy them!

~m said...

I came to read this post from your main post today because my husband grew up reading fact, we still have some of his old copies in the library-that-will-someday-be-the-Little-Tyrant's library!