Skary Childrin and the Carousel of Sorrow
Katy Towell's young adult book "Skary Childrin and the Carousel of Sorrow" is an ominously quirky little gem. A sort of "Lemony Snicket" meets "Harry Potter" as told by Tim Burton, "Skary Childrin" is packed with memorable characters and a delightfully evil villain in the form of a creepy merry-go-round.
The tale takes place in the foreboding town of Widowsbury; a place where the sun never shines and foliage doesn't grow. It is a town right out of Sleepy Hollow inhabited by townspeople afraid of their own shadow. You see, twelve years earlier Widowsbury was a different and beautiful place, but when an unusual storm raged through the town for twelve straight days, it ripped open a hole through which evil escaped. And now, Widowsbury is a place where strangers aren't welcome and everyone waits for the next bad thing to occur.
Meanwhile, at Madame Gertrude's School for Girls, three young ladies are being bullied by classmates and teachers alike. Adelaide Foss is a girl with pointy ears and thick long black braids. She exhibits wolf-like senses that have the whole school believing her to be a werewolf, an accusation to which she doesn't take too kindly.
Maggie Borland is a frizzy haired girl with unnatural strength and the foul temper to match. Endlessly getting into fights that she may or may not have started, she is forever in trouble.
Lastly, there is Beatrice Alfred, a girl with unnaturally big black eyes and a tiny doll-like frame that makes her look younger than the rest. She also happens to see ghosts, mostly of the animal variety.
These quirks make the three girls targets of ridicule and feared by many. The head mistress of the school, Miss Merryweather, is always punishing them for this infraction or that, however imagined they might be. Rather than being allowed to play outside for recess, the girls always seem to find themselves in the gloomy library where the librarian of the moment dishes out their punishment. But as the story opens, and yet another librarian has quit, the girls find themselves with a new one: Miss Delia. Charming, sweet, and smelling like oranges, she befriends the girls as she sees past what everyone else fears. But when she takes them off the school property for some fresh air, she is scolded my Merryweather and told to never be nice to the girls again.
Strangely enough, the next day Miss Delia has disappeared. While Merryweather assumes the librarian quit, the girls believe she has met with foul play and go about trying to solve the mystery of her disappearance.
Along the way, the three befriend Steffan Weller, the son of a cook who works at the nearby Rudyard School for Boys, but who does not attend classes. He is an inventor of sorts and not afraid of newcomers. He, himself, befriends the new guy in town, Lyle Zoethout, a candy man hoping to have a flourishing business in the otherwise gray and depressing place.
But there's something else new in town: a carousel in the middle of Herbane Woods that has appeared out of nowhere; Not to mention, a mysteriously dark figure with long spindly legs and slender fingers that creeps in the shadows, preparing for something unspeakable.
"Skary Childrin" is a breezy book that takes a relatable and modern issue such as bullying, and wraps it up in a playfully gothic and gruesome mystery. The three girls each have distinct personalities and Steffan adds a geeky dose of fun to the established trio. While the girls are clearly mistreated by their peers and the adults watching over them, the potential realities of the abuse are softened by the enduring spirit of the girls and the mystery that begins to develop.
Towell's writing is spare, but elegant. "Mist crept low to the ground, curling around each whispering tree as if searching for something it had lost." The interactions between the girls are alternately realistic and hilarious. When Miss Delia suggests that the girls sit and read while having detention in the library, the innocently naïve Beatrice corrects her having been the victim of abuse in the library for years.
"That's not really what the library is for, Miss Delia," said Beatrice in a motherly tone. "I should know. I've been coming in here every day since I was six years old." Sometimes I think I shall die here." "You're only seven," Miss Delia pointed out. "I know. It's very tragic," Beatrice sighed.
It is curious why all three girls have been left so alone by their parents. While we do get explanations as to why each of the three was left at Madame Gertrude's, the neglect is a bit disturbing and I wanted to get more of a comfortable explanation for their absences. Also, each of the girls has preternatural abilities which are never fully delved into, although I would suspect that in the expected follow-up books, their histories and powers will be expanded upon.
Like "Harry Potter" before it, "Skary Childrin and the Carousel of Sorrow" is an enjoyable lark that firmly establishes the world and characters, while giving us a closed ended mystery that is not only curious, but also truly creepy and action-packed once the finale swings into high-gear. This is a world that can easily be opened up into a rich mythology that will keep kids and adults entertained for years to come. The fact that it reads cinematically doesn't hurt either. "The man held up his claw-hands and opened them with eerie grace. Floating between them was a monarch butterfly haloed by the yellow light of his eyes." If a studio hasn't already snapped up the rights to a feature film, they would be fools not to do it. I was practically writing the script in my head. And, eh-hem, I'm available.
SKARY CHILDRIN AND THE CAROUSEL OF SORROW
Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers