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Book Reviews

The Boggart

by Susan Cooper

My Mother’s Ghost

by Margaret Buffie

Hiccup Champion of the World

by Ken Roberts

The Unseen: Scary Stories

by Janet Lunn, ed.


by Cora Taylor

Fasle Face

by Welwyn Wilton Katz

Librarians and booksellers are often asked these days for books that are “just like the Goosebumps” series. Parents tend to want something more challenging and literary for their kids, but kids want something equally frightening and gruesome.

Goosebumps, the junior horror series initiated four years ago by American R.L. Stine, sells about 150,000 copies a month in Canadian bookstores alone. Now at #45, the series, according to Scholastic Canada director of publishing Iole Lucchese, has achieved its success largely by tapping into a whole new market: “they’ve turned kids who don’t read into readers.” As well, she says, the series thrives on “kids’ natural inclination to collect.” Though Lucchese admits that the books “aren’t brilliant writing,” she praises them for being “a safe scare,” and for winning over reluctant readers, setting them on the road to more complex literary adventures. Professor Lissa Paul, a children’s literature specialist at the University of New Brunswick, doesn’t think anyone should stop kids from reading them, but insists, “Don’t confuse Goosebumps with literature.” She sees the series in the same light as the Hardy Boys or the Babysitters Club – books that cement a community of kids. But she also believes it is the role of schools and libraries to promote alternatives.

Outside our borders, there are numerous writers of excellent horror and suspense novels for young adults: Mary Downing Hahn, Betty Ren Wright, John Bellairs, Avi, and Robert Westall. Here is a sampling of our own home-grown horror alternatives, which offer thrills and chills, but also superior writing.

If the reader is looking for something spooky and suspenseful, an excellent choice would be The Unseen: Scary Stories, selected by Janet Lunn. This collection of ghostly tales is a treasure trove of Canadian authors: Michael Bedard, Monica Hughes, Jean Little, Kit Pearson, and Brian Doyle to name just a few. These short stories will lead many readers on to full-length novels and introduce them to new authors. Included are “The Clearing,” from Tim Wynne-Jones’ Some of the Kinder Planets, and “Spirits of the Railway” from Paul Yee’s Tales from Gold Mountain. Many are original stories never before published; many were written especially for this anthology. Janet Lunn herself is one of Canada’s most versatile writers and she knows all about ghosts (she claims to have lived with one). Her own novels, The Root Cellar and Shadow in Hawthorn Bay, weave historical, supernatural, and romantic elements seamlessly together. Although her novels may appeal more to a female audience, The Unseen is a diverse and eclectic collection that has something for everyone.

Cora Taylor’s Julie offers a taste of the supernatural without graphic horror or gratuitous violence. Julie has always had the gift, or curse, of being able to see into the past, or predict the future. Even though very young, she has learned not to tell others what she “sees” except when events threaten her family or friends. A fairly easy, but beautifully written and suspenseful novel, Julie is a good pick for students between Grades 4 and 6.

A bit longer and more demanding, but as delightful and comical as it is suspenseful, is Susan Cooper’s The Boggart, appropriate for readers in Grades 4 to 7. A boggart is an ancient and mischievous spirit, and this particularly reluctant one has been accidentally imported from his ancient home (in Castle Keep in Scotland) to the Volnick home in Toronto. Fascinated by computers and all things electrical, and able to transform at will, the boggart meets the modern day world in a pleasant blend of humour, suspense, folklore, and fantasy by the writer of the phenomenal Dark is Rising quintet.

False Face by Welwyn Wilton Katz was inspired by a museum exhibit and the empty space left behind when an Iroquois false face mask was removed from public display. Since its publication, False Face has inspired much discussion and debate over Katz’s use of a native religious artifact in the story. The novel combines native mythology, contemporary issues, cultural appropriation, and the supernatural in a riveting read for ages 10 to 14.

One of Canada’s finest writers of supernatural suspense for young teens is Margaret Buffie. My Mother’s Ghost incorporates unresolved tragedies, domestic conflict, and the supernatural in a single story – as do Buffie’s earlier novels, such as Who is Frances Rain? and her latest, The Dark Garden. There are two “hauntings” in My Mother’s Ghost. Jessica’s family, and especially her mother, is haunted by guilt and grief following the death of Jessica’s younger brother. But their new home is also haunted by the spectre of a handicapped young man who once lived at Willow Creek Ranch and suffered enormously at the hands of an oppressive and domineering parent. Buffie and Michael Bedard, the author of Redwork and Painted Devil, are both masters at blending the contemporary with the supernatural in novels for students aged 12 to 16.

In a previous incarnation, R.L. Stine was principally a writer of humour, and was known to his readers as “Jovial Bob Stine.” Many readers of Goosebumps say they read his books because they think they’re funny. For readers, then, who are looking for laughs as well as scares, Ken Roberts’ Hiccup Champion of the World is fast-paced, easy to read, suspenseful, and funny. Maynard Chan is 12 and he’s had the hiccups for three months; his friends are doing everything they can to cure him or to scare him to death – whichever comes first. The novels of Ken Roberts and other writers such as Eric Wilson, Gordon Korman, and Martyn Godfrey appeal especially to reluctant readers or students between the ages of 8 and 11 who aren’t ready yet for Bellairs, Avi, or Westall.

It’s hard to predict or guarantee that a certain book will capture a reader’s attention. But the above books have gathered devoted readers and will remain mainstays on bookshelves long after the Goosebumps series is dead and buried. Already librarians have noticed a decrease in the number of requests, and the readership is becoming younger all the time – usually a sign that a series is on the wane. The myriad new spin-off series and look-alikes aren’t attracting as many readers, and one can only hope that more and more children will begin to look for something different, something a bit more subtle, and perhaps something with a little Canadian content.