Possibly Distinguished “Page-Turners”
As a librarian I’m always on the lookout for books that are suspenseful, or, even better, scary. Those books can be easy to recommend or to booktalk, and although they don’t get Newbery recognition too often, it does happen. DOLL BONES (2014) and SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS (2013) are recent Honor books with some scary elements, and the 2009 roster included both THE GRAVEYARD BOOK (medal) and THE UNDERNEATH (honor). All of those titles contain more than just spooky moments, of course. They all feature strong characterizations, compelling plots, and distinguished writing styles. So far this year I’ve found three with strong booktalk potential, but just one of them seems like a possible Newbery contender in my opinion.
Christian McKay Heidicker’s SCARY STORIES FOR YOUNG FOXES was an unexpected delight, for me at least. Once you put “scary” in the title of your book, you really have to follow through, and this one does. Each of the short stories about foxes has truly scary elements, and the storytelling sets them up for maximum effect. The yellow death and Mr. Scratch are deadly threats that put Uly and Mia in real danger. And then there’s Miss Potter with her ether and her noose. I’m not sure how many child readers will get the Peter Rabbit connection, but even if you don’t, she’s a horrifying and completely original villain. The scary stories also trigger character development, as Uly gradually gains courage and confidence and Mia comes to terms with her mother’s abandonment and the death of her siblings.
The “development of a plot” is another key part of this book. The storyteller interludes pace the action and link the stories from the start; later the characters converge and we learn that they really are connected. The interludes also introduce the seven fox listeners, who steadily depart until the last one is left. (Which reminds me of Eleanor Farjeon’s “Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard” from nearly a century ago: short stories, storyteller interludes, one listener leaves after each story, though Martin Pippin’s stories are about love, not killer foxes and maniacal picture book authors. That’s not at all relevant to this Newbery discussion, but it’s one of my favorite books ever, so when I get a chance to mention it, I do). In FOXES, the closing revelation of the storyteller’s identity is quite satisfying.
Another book that carries through on its title’s promise is OUT TO GET YOU: 13 TALES OF WEIRDNESS AND WOE by Josh Allen. It’s got creepy cats, a deal with the devil, frog dissections gone wrong…The stories have premises that are original and often surprising. Excellence in “delineation of characters” or “setting” in a collection of short stories is hard to manage. Paying more attention to character development could mean sacrificing the effectiveness of plot twists. A book like this can be just right in terms of “presentation to a child audience,” but it’s tricky to find distinguished elements outside of the plot. In a classroom, reading one aloud would hook many readers. I would choose the first (“Vanishers”) or the last (“The Shadow Curse”). I believe Newbery committee members would be harder to persuade, though.
Rodman Philbrick’s WILDFIRE is more suspenseful than scary…but it’s really, really suspenseful. Absolutely no time is wasted on getting into the action. Sam is running full speed from “a wall of fire that wants to eat me” by the fifth page, and there’s not much slowing down from there. The short chapters jump headlong from one crisis to another: fire, jeep crash, arsonists, lightning, bear, arsonists again…and the threat of the fire looms throughout. Sam’s first-person narration shifts from an appropriately frantic pace during the most intense danger to more reflective and sometimes funny when he has time to catch his breath. Amidst all of the action, the author allows just enough room for Sam’s backstory, and later Delphy’s, to unfold within the narrative. This is an appealing and successful plot-driven story, with a well-rendered setting. I enjoyed it and I’m sure kids will, but I don’t see it as a likely Newbery contender.
I thought highly enough of FOXES, though, to include it in my October nominations. Are there other scary/suspenseful/action books out there this year that we should be looking closely at?
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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