The Shadows: The Books of Elsewhere by Jacqueline West, illustrated by Poly Bernatene, 241 pp, RL 4

is now in PAPERBACK!

Congratulations to Jacqueline West, author of the 
2010 Winner of the  CYBILS award for 
Best Fantasy and Science Fiction for Middle Grades!

At first, The Books of Elsewhere : The Shadows, written by Jacqueline West and illustrated by Argentinian born Poly Bernatene seems like something like something you might have already read.  Olive Dunwoody is an eleven year old outsider, both in her home and at school. Her parents are "a pair of more than slightly dippy mathematicians" (West has her characters make some very funny math jokes  and they are so in love they are reminiscent of Gomez and Morticia Addams at times) and Olive clearly has not inherited their gifts in the world of numbers. While they are disappointed, they are loving and try their best to understand their child, seeing her as "some kind of genetic aberration - they talked to her patiently, as if she were a foreign exchange from a country no one had ever heard of." They are devoted to their jobs as professors and have moved Olive often for their careers. Naturally, this has made Olive a bit of a loner who is able to fit in and assimilate as needed, but not so great at making deeper connections. Fortunately for Olive, that is all about to change. Add a creepy old house with a mysterious previous owner and her three seemingly feral cats to to the loner kid scenario and you've got something -  just not what you think, really!

The Dunwoody's purchase the house of the recently deceased Mrs McMartin and everything in it, including the enigmatic paintings that hang on the walls throughout the house. With the summer ahead of her and no new friends, Olive finds herself alone in the house and exploring. Sometimes she thinks she can see things moving in the paintings and "they seem to be keeping secrets." Right outside her bedroom is a painting that Olive describes as "a rolling field with a row of little houses in the distance. It was evening in the painting, and all the windows in the houses were dark. But the houses didn't look like they were sleeping comfortably, just waiting for sunrise to come and start another day. The houses looked like they were holding their breath.  They crouched among the trees and blew out their lights, trying not to be seen.  Seen by what?"  Jacqueline West is a published poet and her writing is so descriptive, beautiful and magical that it was hard to keep from quoting large passages elsewhere in this review. And, it is this gifted writing style that takes what could have been a familiar, tired story and makes it something energetic, new and entrancing.  One of my favorite passages comes when Olive is spying on and summing up two neighbors who are taking tea in the backyard:

Mrs Nivens and Mrs Dewey both smiled sweetly. Mrs Dewey looked as if she had been made of round parts stacked on top of each other, like a snowman. Mrs Nivens was thin and blond and looked like she had been carved out of a stick of butter. Both of them looked like they would melt on a hot day.

When a fat orange cat named Horatio squeezes his way through Olive's open window and speaks vaguely (but wittily) of the dangers that the house possesses, he cautions her to be on her guard because, "There is something that doesn't want you here, and it will do it's best to get rid of you." Not sure if Horatio is trying to protect or threaten, Olive continues to investigate the many rooms of the house.  Another painting attracts Olive's closer inspection, that of a dark forest scene that seems to have a tiny white shape "darting and flickering" among the trees. When poking through the many rooms of the house leads to a bit of playful dress-up and the discovery of an old pair of spectacles, part of the mystery of the house is uncovered. The spectacles allow Olive to view the paintings as movies of a sort - she can see the subjects moving. A closer inspection reveals that Olive, when wearing the spectacles, can actually enter the paintings herself and interact with the subjects. This is how she meets Morton, the flickering white shadow in the forest.  Morton, a nine year old who is sure boys are superior to girls, tells Olive about a bad man who left him stranded in this forest and a talking cat after he heard him talking outside his window one night.  Wanting to help Morton get home and fearing she may be trapped in the painting, Olive calls on Horatio for help, even though Morton insists he is a bad cat.

The two make it out of the painting and, unhappily, Morton is placed in the painting of the houses, leaving Olive to wonder who is telling her the truth, who she can trust and how will she uncover the true story of this house?  Readers are left wondering almost up to the climax as well. Some powerful dark magic, three cat familiars and gravestones that have been moved from Scotland to America by a powerful warlock account for the pervasive menace that fills the house.  But, the cats aren't all bad and they do their best to help Olive battle the forces of darkness in a playful way. In fact, they often reminded me of the penguins from the animated movie Madagascar.  The scene in which Olive searches within herself to find the courage an creativity to fight off the old owner of the house, exiled with Aldous McMartin, rings true to her character. The explanations of how and why Aldous McMartin used his dark power to created the magical paintings are interesting, but almost eclipsed by the adventures that come before it. Olive, Morton and the three cats are wonderful characters and their movements in and out of the different paintings make for some great storytelling. In fact,  The Shadows sometimes feels like two books in one. I am definitely interested to know the backstory of Aldous McMartin and his descendants, but I also feel like I would be happy to read only about Olive and crew ambling around the house, especially if it meant the mystery of Morton was unraveled. Maybe that is coming in book two, Spellbound!

If you are interested, there is an enlightening interview with Jacqueline West to be read and little more art from Poly Bernatene...

And, for those of you who always scroll to the bottom, what follows is my thought process as I tried to determine the merits of the book as a potential CYBILS winner in the Science Fiction/Fantasy Elementary & Middle Grade Category.

First Impressions as a Reader

Elements of the plot feel very familiar and, while Olive is quirky and unique, she also feels a little familiar when it comes to fantasy heroes.  But, the more I read the more I was sucked in by West's lyrical writing style.  While the world she creates might not be filled with as many magical incarnations and creatures as those of Cornelia Funke's, her words are every bit as elegant and descriptive and her world building feels complete and cozy.  Funke's (I use her as a comparison since one of her books made it to the short list) worlds are often epic in scale, dark, sad and brutal with brief glimpses of glimmering, magical beauty.  West's world, contained within the walls of an old house, feels smaller, less threatening and more manageable for the average ten year old reader.

First Impressions of a CYBILS Judge Who Has Agreed to Read and Consider a Short List of Books for the Honor of Best Fantasy & Science Fiction (Middle Grade) 2010 

Personally, I feel that this is one of the best books I read in this category.  Compared with the the other titles, I feel like West's writing has high literary merit and her kid appeal is strong as well.  However, I do worry about alienating boys from this book because of the female protagonist.

Final Impressions:  Literary Merit vs. Kid Appeal

Overall Impression: I think that literary merit outranks kid appeal on this book, ONLY because a girl, not a girl and boy as is so common these days, is the main character. Of course, Morton is a strong and compelling character in the book, but so little is known about him that I feel like he is very secondary and may not be enough to attract boy readers.  However, don't girls read more than boys?  Is gender appeal really that big a part of kid appeal?

Rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (The Roar and When You Reach Me being a 9 in terms of literary merit) : 9

Rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (The Diary of a Wimpy Kid and 39 Clues being a 9 in terms of kid appeal) : 7


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