I see writing for kids as one of the most difficult creative tasks to do well. How to judge what might appeal to a younger audience? How to make the tone convincing yet not condescending?
The difficulties seem multiplied when you add horror to the mix. It intensifies the question of age appropriateness, and then there’s the matter of taste, or in this case, what scares you. For example, try all you might, but stories of vampires and werewolves don’t scare me, but add some zombies and I’ll have nightmares for weeks.
Two books from the small Canadian imprint Tundra demonstrate this fine line.
The first is called Monsterology, written by Arthur Slade and illustrated by Derek Mah. It’s subtitled “Fabulous Lives of the Creepy, the Revolting, and the Undead” and that’s a pretty good indication of what’s inside — it’s funny more than scary.
In fact, Monsterology is a mix of comedy and reference book. Slade divvies up the book into 15 sections, each discussing a famous monster. He starts with Dracula and ends with the Grim Reaper, with stops for Medusa, Baba Yaga, and others along the way. The entries seem a bit like trading cards actually, complete with a portrait, stats, likes and dislikes, high school memories, and a brief quotation.
As I said, it’s all good fun rather than frightening. And Slade makes us learn a surprising amount of information, as he has a knack for summarizing complicated stories, like Frankenstein or Quasimodo. Monsterology is like a reference book that your teacher makes you read in Grade 5 that is… surprise… entertaining. Add comedy to the horror and young audience, and it’s an even more difficult feat to pull off.
As an example of Slade’s carefully controlled tone, here is the section called “Wacky ways to become a zombie”:
First, if a comet crashes into the earth, don’t stand too close — you may breathe in dust from another world that turns you into a zombie. Same rule applies to a crashed satellite or meteorite. And don’t poke around military virus factories or get caught up in biological warfare, all this could lead to zombie-itis. Radioactive material is also a no-no. Voodoo can be used to create zombies, but the major cause of zombie-ism is sitting too close to the TV. (63)
The art by Mah is a nifty mix of caricature and menace (although the first predominates). Mah also contributes some illustrations to the book’s website, which is worth checking out. It comes complete with some MP3 interviews with Dracula, Baba Yaga and others. Nothing like podcasting dangerous encounters with monstrous beings!
The other book from Tundra is Lone Wolf by Edo van Belkom. It’s a sequel to an earlier book by van Belkom, Wolf Pack, which won the Aurora Award last year. You can pick up Lone Wolf on its own, even though it does constantly refer to events in the previous book.
Lone Wolf has a nice momentum to it, but not all of the details felt convincing. We pick up the story with a group of four siblings, all werewolves, who are trying to go to high school and live normal lives. The three brothers are facing a bully at school and the sister is falling for a guy who has auditioned for the same play as she has.
Secrecy plays a big role in the story. The werewolf brothers could beat anyone else to a pulp, but they are trying to fit into human society. And what will happen if that potential boyfriend ever finds out she’s got that problem? I liked the moment when the pack meets a wild werewolf, who tells them not to dream about the wilderness. The habitat is disappearing and they would help the other werewolves more if they join human civilization and fight for the environment that way. Lone Wolf also deals with a logging group that moves into the local forest even though they don’t have the right to. Apart from the menace of clear-cutting, this will leave the four siblings with less room to roam.
Lone Wolf is not a scary book; unlike Monsterology, it doesn’t go for laughs, but rather uses horror motifs as a way of sharpening the discomforts of growing up. That means that van Belkom has to get all of the little details right, and this is where the book feels wobbly around the edges.
For one thing, the names don’t ring true. The werewolf siblings are named Argus, Noble, Harlan, and Tora. This might seem like a petty thing, and might not bother the next person; all the same, naming is a crucial aspect of any genre work. I think I’ll have to take this up again in a subsequent article.
The plot structure also seems a bit off and Tora’s dating dilemma in particular is short-changed. Van Belkom has otherwise made a virtue of a clear and straightforward storyline and the odd bits are more obvious for that.
All these things said about Monsterology and Lone Wolf, I’m not the target audience for either. I can criticize and I can praise, but I’m not the same judge of convincing vs. condescending as kids or teens would be.