Scream Street Series by Tommy Donbavand, illustrated by Cartoon Saloon, 116 pages
I have to confess, I probably would not have even given this series a second look if it had not been close to Halloween. But, having read the first two books in the Scream Street series, I'm glad I did. While the series name and titles of British author Tommy Donbavand's books (the first two in the series have just released in the States) sound a bit gruesome, the plots rarely are. As Donbavand says of his books, "Imagine if Stephen King had written Scooby Doo," and this definitely rings true. While the blood, fangs and rotting flesh are present but low key, the books are rich with imaginative details and humorous twists on otherwise gory subject matter. When I was a kid, horror stories were the province of adult novels, which Donbavand ended up reading as a kid in order to feed his interests. I was fascinated by ghosts and witches, but their stories made up a small fraction of the books on the shelf in my elementary school library. The great John Bellairs, author of The House with the Clock in its Walls, among many other great gothic novels for young readers, dominated my experience of the supernatural as a child. Even horror movies were not as plentiful when I was a kid. Because of this, I never really developed an appreciation for the genre and it has not been a part of my children's lives. However, vampires, werewolves and mummies are a pretty large part of the current young adult/teen literary world and can no longer be ignored. Also, I think that it is a fairly normal part of childhood to be fascinated by myths, legends and creatures that hover on the edge of reality. Most people, in general, like the thrill of a good scare from time to time, be it from a roller coaster or a suspenseful book or movie, and I think kids crave this as well.
Tommy Donbavand's Scream Street has a very creative premise and, as the plot unfolded in books one and two, I found myself reminded of Michael Buckley's excellent series, Sisters Grimm. Written at approximately a third grade reading level, this series fills a relatively empty niche. For some reason, the bulk of books on the shelf seem to jump from second grade Magic Tree House type books to fourth grade reading level and higher books of 300 pages an more, like the Sisters Grimm series. Scream Street, along with Cornelia Funke's Ghosthunters series and Angie Sage's Araminta Spookie books, make up a tidy triumvirate of creepy, spine tingling stories at this reading level. Scream Street, which is illustrated by the Lilly Bernard of the Irish artistic collective Cartoon Saloon, introduces us to the unusual cast of characters, all of whom are depicted in a "Meet the Residents" picture gallery at the front of each book.
In the first pages of book 1, Fang of the Vampire, the main character, Luke Watson, finds himself and his parents packed up, knocked out and shipped off to a new home on Scream Street by purple clad, masked members of G.H.O.U.L. G.H.O.U.L., which Luke later learns stands for Government Housing of Unusual Lifeforms, has discovered that, ever since his tenth birthday a few months back, Luke has begun to transform into a werewolf, albeit only partially, when he gets angry. Because of this, he and his family are forcibly moved onto the reservation for the un-dead and other assorted creepies. Once there, he and his parents suffer a poltergeist attack as well as a visit from their vampire neighbors, Alston, Bella and Resus Negative. Both incidents seem to be equally upsetting to Mr and Mrs Watson and Luke quickly realizes that his parents have to leave Scream Street soon or possibly be scared to death. Luke quickly befriends Resus, who is actually a "normal" who dyes his hair black and wears fake fangs so that he can fit in with his family and neighbors, and the Egyptian mummy, Cleo Farr, who has almost no pain threshold, perhaps because, as she is fond of pointing out, most of her organs are stored in a jar. Cleo is quite a kick and I look forward to more from her as the series progresses and all the characters, really. Despite the reading level and length of this book, I felt that Donbavand did an excellent job giving depth and humor to Luke, Cleo and Resus. The emotions experienced by Luke when he realizes his parents can't cope with where his condition has taken them and the sense of responsibility that he feels are palpable and purposeful, as are the emotions and the embarrassment of being the "black sheep" in the neighborhood that Resus experiences.
Although the inhabitants of Scream Street are unable to leave due to a spell placed on the neighborhood, Luke, Resus and Cleo learn that Samuel Skipstone, one of the original inhabitants, wrote a book (that he then confined his soul to, upon his death, so that he could continue the research that he loved as well as imbuing the book with magical properties, including the ability to talk and generate 3-dimensional, talking illustrations/ghosts) with the keys to opening a back to the normal world. Luke, Cleo and Resus steal the book from Sir Otto Sneer and his shape-shifting nephew, Dixon. Sneer is the tyrannical overseer of Scream Street who is gradually taking away all of the comforts of the residents, from their personal belongings to their electricity. The three learn what they need to do to open the doorway, which includes finding artifacts from all six of the founding fathers and mothers of Scream Street, and the quest begins. Donbavand has added some very clever and amusing twists to the books. Resus, even though he is not a real vampire, has a magical cape that seems to contain almost all of the things the three need in their adventures. He has also conjured up an unruly gang of goblins who work for Sneer. Led by Squiffer, their greatest defense (and ultimate downfall, thanks to a small, enclosed room and a torch that Resus pulls from his cape) is the noxious, green gas that they expel from their goblin bums. There are faucets that deliver blood to the homes of the vampires (where the blood comes from is too gross to explain) and swarms of vampire rats in the sewers. There are also some very funny and intriguing supporting characters. Although at times it sounds like he is channeling the laid-back turtle dad from Finding Nemo, Doug, the giggling zombie, is hilarious. He pops up from the ground, all scabby and oozing, and says things like, "Far out, little vampire dude!" and will do almost anything for a brain smoothie or spinal fluid. Eefa Everwell, proprietor of Everwell's Emporium, is an enchantingly beautiful witch (due to a spell she cast) who does what she can to help the three emerge victorious. Finally, there is Dixon, the sycophantic nephew and toady to Sir Otto Sneer. His shape shifting ability makes for some surprises and scares for Luke, Resus and Cleo as well as some funny bits.
If your child begs you to read something creepy and a little bit gory, I think that this humorous, inventive, well written series is the one to choose. And, if your kids enjoy it, there are short stories to be read on the Scream Street website. There will be 13 books in this series (naturally) and books 5 and 6 are the most recently released in the US.