Monday, March 10, 2014

The Spiderwick Chronicles: A Review

Showing kids that it is fun to read is an ongoing challenge.  There are probably hundreds of books written by parents, psychologists and educators who could come up with different theories of why this is.  I’m none of these three, so I’m going to humbly put forth a simple and unscientific theory of my own, and you can do with it what you will.  My theory is that children are not naturally averse to books or reading.  Look at how many toddlers will waddle over to their parents with a stout board-book in their grubby paws and eagerly await the story to be read to them.  Then look at how many teenagers hate to read.  There are no Cliff’s Notes for toddlers like there are for high-schoolers.  What happens between those years to change book-loving kids into electively illiterate adults? 

Technology might be one of the problems.  A girl once tried to turn the page of my hardcover books by sliding her finger over it.  “Doesn’t it have a touchscreen?” she asked.*  I see news coverage of students in classrooms using pads and pods and things for learning—which is fine, unless it is somehow training them to view anything that doesn’t resemble a video game as “boring.”  Another problem is, sadly, parents.  Remember that toddler?  What happens when he brings a book over to his dad, and said dad is too busy watching TV to read to his kid?  Parents, not teachers, are the examples that their children are going to try to emulate.  While working in a library, I cringed every time a family came into the Children’s Section and, when the child ran to the book section, the parent pulled them away to “pick out a DVD.” 

But I digress. 

The real reason I started on this subject is that one of the reasons children might not be attracted to reading is that the books written for them are not attractive.  Teenagers, I think stop reading because of the load of depressing garbage heaped upon them in classes.  No wonder they’re raging balls of angst!  Starting long before high school kids are assigned to read things that are not really that appropriate for their age, such as A Child Called It.**  Even if, as educators probably would explain, these books encourage contemplation on weighty themes—an opinion I would take issue with—it does not encourage reading as a form of entertainment.  Books are educational, yes.  They encourage contemplation, yes.  But kids will neither learn nor contemplate if they do not read, and they will not read unless they enjoy it. 

Which brings me to Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black’s The Spiderwick Chronicles.  I read these during Christmas Break one of my later years in college.  This series is exactly the kind of book I would have loved as a child, and I still loved them as an adult.  It is the story of three kids, troublemaking Jared, his more rational twin brother Simon, and their cranky older sister Mallory.  Moving into a dilapidated old house with their mother as their parents struggle through a divorce, Jared is increasingly volatile, blaming his mother for everything and wanting nothing more than to be with his dad.  This makes for a sort of “Boy Who Cried Wolf” situation as bad things start to happen around the house, and Jared is blamed.  The true culprits, it turns out, are fairies.  And these fairies, unlike the Disney ones who only fight about whether a dress should be blue or pink, are potentially just as harmful as they can be helpful. 

This is how children’s books should be.  The five volumes of The Spiderwick Chronicles are about 100 pages long each (the books themselves are slightly smaller than most publications nowadays) and deftly illustrated by DiTerlizzi, both aspects which minimize any “The covers of this book are too far apart” intimidation a hesitant reader might feel.  A little mystery, adventure, even magic can pull one into a world where books are far from the obligation of Required Reading, and makes one want to get book after book of the series.  But while the reader is carried away by the sheer wonder of the story, they’re also being gently introduced to heavier themes (like divorce, dealing with anger, showing kindness and building trust) that will eventually help a child move from Juvenile Fiction to Classics. 

*True story.

**Also a true story; an eleven-year-old I knew a few years back was suffering nightmares due to the assignment of this book about child abuse. 

Recommended Reading Age: 9+, not only because of the Parental Notes below, but also because this is where I've noticed kids start to assume that "books are for losers" or "I don't like to read" attitude.

Parental Notes: Some scary creatures and the issues of divorce and Jared’s misbehavior are the reasons I don’t suggest this for younger readers, unless parents have pre-read the books or plan to read aloud to their children…which is always a good rule of thumb anyway.

Availability:  These books are still available in attractive hardcover box sets.  See also the sequel trilogy Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles, which involves some new characters and their own problems and themes.  In addition to being available at most book retailers, I’ve found several good-quality volumes at secondhand shops and library book sales, so keep your eye out for them there as well.

Adaptations: The live-action adaptation starring Freddy Highmore is fine, but like so many film adaptations it’s not quite as good as the book.  

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