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January 11, 2011

2010 Wrap: Books, Part 4

Any parent with boys of the age to be reading chapter books can hardly help becoming aware of a genre aimed squarely at their kids: gross-out books, usually involving monsters or zombies or some other creepy creatures of one sort or another, with descriptive passages featuring gruesome details (of a cartoony nature, rather than a literal one) thereof. Based on the sheer volume, I imagine that some publishing study has identified this subject as particularly appealing to young boys, and thus particularly likely to get that demographic to put down the DS and start reading.

Judging by my six-year-old, the study wasn't wrong; while he's far from resistant to reading just about any type of book, spooky, creepy topics light up his eyes. I suppose it's nothing new, really; I recall  learning and delighting in the old classic about "great green globs of greasy, grimy gopher guts" at about this age.

Trouble is, the majority of the chapter books being churned out to satisfy this market are ... well, not very good—clearly written quickly and without much care. This bothers the target audience not one bit, from my observations, but it is a bit of a drag for those of us charged with reading these books to our kids occasionally.

Which is why I was so pleased last year to discover the Barnaby Grimes series of chapter books by the veteran British team of writer Paul Stewart and illustrator Chris Riddell. Set in a fictional city that's very closesly based on Georgian-era London, they recount the various adventures of a self-described "tick-tock lad"—an ancestor of modern bike messengers, basically, only Barnaby and the others in his trade get to their destinations by leaping over and rapelling down the rooflines of the city, in an early (and tktt) version of parkour. (I'm assuming this profession is entirely the authors' invention, but it's brilliant, opening up a somewhat overexposed time and place in completely new ways, and allowing Stewart and Riddell to make the world of their books their own.)

Barnaby's work inevitably seems to carry him into the path of all sorts of trouble, much of it supernatural. For instance, in Legion of the Dead, a delivery involving funeral materials leads him to a graveyard where the dead have apparently begun to rise (you can imagine the gross-out potential); a curse brought back from military campaigns in India turns out to be the culprit. Stewart and Riddell are smart enough, for these creepy tales, to stand on the shoulders of great writers past: Shades of Dickens and Kipling (as well as maybe a touch of Poe) are evident in their storytelling. Yet all the while, the writing remains at a level within, rather than removed from, its genre—these are not the marvelously macabre but also more literarily challenging children's books of Neil Gaiman (more on which soon, by the way). Which means your child can have his page-turning light gross-out lit, and you can smile, rather than grimace, as you read it to him.

Coming in part 5 (the last of the series): What came from a land down under...

[Image: Courtesy of David Fickling Books]


  1. Great review! Your son might also like the Fergus Crane books by the same authors. They have a different feel but are also really entertaining.

  2. Yes, I meant to but then didn't mention that Stewart and Riddell have collaborated on a number of series, all of which I'd like to check out. I'll try the Fergus Crane ones next, though--thanks!