October 19, 2017
(+++) SOME DARKNESS, SOME LIGHT
The Library, Book 2: Black Moon Rising. By D.J. MacHale. Random House. $16.99.
The Witch’s Kiss. By Katharine & Elizabeth Corr. HarperCollins. $9.99.
In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories. By Alvin Schwartz. Pictures by Victor Rivas. Harper. $16.99.
There is nothing particularly wrong with formulaic plotting and writing in books for young readers (or older ones, for that matter). A journey into expected, well-understood realms of story and character can be a pleasant immersion, allowing plot twists and character development to occur within understood (if not overtly expressed) limits and simply making the reading easier than it would be if everything were to be reinvented. “Formula” books make no attempt to bend their genres or approaches, existing satisfactorily within them and often building an audience by enticing readers who know just what to expect. Indeed, there are some perils to the enticement if an author does bend the formula a bit, as D.J. MacHale does in the second book in his series called The Library. The first book, Curse of the Boggin, established the premise that there exists an otherworldly library where people’s unfinished real-world stories stay until they can be finished and properly shelved – and an occasional person from the real world is needed as an interface with the supernatural book repository, to aid in completing all the unfinished business that prevents the words “The End” from appearing in the books of some people’s lives. This is neither more nor less absurd than the concept underlying many other series for preteens. MacHale also set a slightly humorous tone in that first book when he introduced the character group at its center (part of the formula in books for preteens is the centrality of a team, not a single character). Marcus O’Mara, who narrates the books, sketched his fellow adventurers neatly: “We were like three pieces of a very odd puzzle. Between Theo [McLean], a black guy who looked as though he should be rubbing elbows at a yacht club; [Annabella] Lu, with her Asian roller-derby-girl look, black tights, plaid shirts, and bold makeup; and me, a white guy who wore the same jeans and T-shirts every day until they were so stiff, they could stand up in the corner, we looked like the cast of some kids’ show trying to cover all its ethnic bases. It would be a grand slam if we had a Hispanic friend. Or maybe a Tongan.” This passage in the first book was MacHale’s sly notice that he is trying to cover all the required contemporary bases of identifiable multiethnic characters – besides which, Lu is athletic and intense; Theo is highly intellectual and scientific, and does not initially believe in the supernatural; and Marcus fits right in the middle, as usual in books like this. Of course, “My two best buddies don’t always get along. If not for me, I doubt they’d even be friends.” So says Marcus in the second book, Black Moon Rising. There is nothing unusual in any of this. However, MacHale goes for greater darkness and seriousness in this book than in the first, and it does not quite work. This is Marcus’ first official assignment as an agent of the Library, and it involves strange occurrences at a place called Coppell Middle School, to which Marcus, Theo and Lu go to sort things out. They soon befriend the eighth-grade class president, Ainsley Murcer, who proves to be the key to all the mysteries: a witch informs her that she has been chosen as the high priestess of a coven that will take over the world if Ainsley performs the necessary ritual on Halloween, which is the night of the black moon. It turns out that all this turns on blood magic, having been set in motion by the start of Ainsley’s menses – and this does not ring true with the generally light tone of The Library. There is in fact a deep blood-magic connection in folklore involving witches (and female power in general). But the whole thing – which, of course, only Marcus has the power to stop – seems rather too adult and rather too serious for the tone of the first book and, indeed, the first part of Black Moon Rising itself. Marcus does retain some sense of humor, which helps, but this is a case in which MacHale would have been better off sticking more closely to the formula he originally established than trying to expand it into more-serious territory.
Sister coauthors Katharine and Elizabeth Corr stick fairly closely to the fairy-tale-reinterpreted format of The Witch’s Kiss, the first book of a planned trilogy. The main strength of the book is its portrayal of protagonist Meredith (Merry), a reluctant young witch. This is a fairly standard concept, one among many familiar elements that also include a sleeping curse, three magical sisters, being raised by people who are not one’s true parents, and – yes – the kiss of true love. The elements are mashed together attractively if not always seamlessly, and there are a few effective new matters here as well. Notable among those is Merry’s relationship with her brother, Leo, who is also her best friend and is not magical at all – but is strong and supportive and important (indeed, crucial) to the story, not a mere hanger-on. The tale itself has to do with a longstanding curse involving an evil wizard named Gwydion who can only be defeated by Merry – whose magic is uncertain and who is very insecure in her abilities (typical feelings for plenty of protagonists in young-reader novels of many genres). Gwydion has a minion known as the King of Hearts, and he turns out to be a teenage heartthrob with plenty of romantic potential except for being, you know, evil. Some parts of The Witch’s Kiss tend to drag, notably the exposition that deals with Anglo-Saxon times and gives the history of Gwydion, Jack, and the three witches – this provides explanatory material but slows the narrative pace considerably. Again and again, when the story focuses on Merry, it brightens and becomes more interesting. For example, she feels bad about using her magic to do better in school; that may make readers wonder if they have any advantages that they exploit similarly in the real world. Yet Merry is rather slow on the uptake: she has a magical manuscript that tells her what to do, but she does not listen to it and therefore has to spend a lot of time and effort trying to save the world – and ends up doing what the manuscript said anyway. Of course, without its quest elements and its finding-yourself elements and its possible-romance elements, The Witch’s Kiss would not be the genre novel that it decidedly is. Young readers who enjoy retellings and mashings-together of fairy tales will have fun with what is largely a lighthearted book, and will look forward to re-encountering Merry, who is by far the novel’s most interesting character, in the sequel, The Witch’s Tears.
There is more teenage angst than genuine scariness in The Witch’s Kiss, but sometimes books exist specifically to be frightening – even, in an age-appropriate way, for very young readers indeed. That is the case with In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, which is a Level 2 book (“high-interest stories for developing readers”) in the “I Can Read!” series. Alvin Schwartz goes out of his way not to be too frightening in these seven very short pieces, and Victor Rivas’ illustrations help immensely by blending the scary with the silly: the one of a boy casually licking a large lollipop while holding the leash of a giant centipede/alien creature that looms behind him, a picture that is not connected to any story in the book, is a perfect example; so is the also-unconnected-with-a-tale picture of a bat-winged, skull-faced, goat-legged creature carrying a top hat out of whose top peeks another of his kind. The tales here, although all right for their intended audience, are less interesting than the pictures that illustrate them. They include “The Teeth,” in which a boy meets men with bigger and bigger choppers; “In the Graveyard,” where a woman looks at three corpses that talk to her; “The Green Ribbon,” about a girl – later a woman – who always wears the title item, which turns out to be holding her head onto her neck; “In a Dark, Dark Room,” with a ghost springing out of a dark box on a dark shelf in a dark chest; “The Night It Rained,” about a man’s encounter with a ghost boy; “The Pirate,” in which a pirate ghost scares a girl; and “The Ghost of John,” the old rhyme about “long white bones and the flesh all gone.” No story lasts more than a page or a few pages, and all are intended to be scary but not very scary. The book certainly works at or around Halloween, but it can be enjoyable anytime for beginning readers who want something just a little bit spooky.