Generally speaking, I like my kidlit with unambiguously happy endings, but this week I’m reviewing two books that put me on edge, each in different ways. Considering the Halloween season is upon us, I suppose that is appropriate.
“The Curse of the Werepenguin” (Viking, 2019) is by Illinois author Allan Woodrow.
The premise — werePENGUIN? — is unapologetically silly. Honestly, that’s silly.
The early scenes are also silly. Take this conversation that happens early on:
“You’ve heard about the werepenguins of Brugaria, of course,” says the penguin caretaker at the St. Ave Zoo, where the story begins.
“Werepenguins? You mean werewolves,” says the zoo animal procurer, in the market for penguins.
“Werewolves get all the attention. You don’t read as much about the were-aardvarks of Tanzania or the weretermites of Brazil," the caretaker says.
“Fairy tales,” the procurer says with a dismissive wave of their hand. “There’s no such thing as were-anything except underwear. And that’s spelled differently.”
Various running jokes also tickled my funny bone, as did the characters with names like Frau Farfenugen, Blazenda and Baron Chordata.
But “The Curse” also has the ominous feel of a folktale, with a tall, forbidding castle, a deep, dark sea, and lots of mysteries, including the meaning of the penguin-shaped birthmark on the main character’s neck.
Woodrow’s storytelling is compelling. The story didn’t end how I thought (and hoped) it might, but Woodrow certainly set up the ending so it makes sense based on the rest of the story. And you could say it’s a happy-ish ending.
Silly and also ominous, ultimately this is less a funny romp than a dark and intense story. Think more “Lemony Snicket” than “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” I know many young readers love this kind of story. So dive in!
“The Afterwards” (Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2018) is by A.F. Harrold. He also wrote “The Song From Somewhere Else,” which I reviewed 18 months ago. “The Afterwards” is a book I had to put down a couple times before, ultimately, I picked it up and devoured it. That’s because the plot is a little disturbing, though also intriguing.
December (Ember), a young girl (grade school of some sort) whose own mother has died and is being raised by her father, is friends with Happiness (I love these character names!). But early in the story Happiness (Ness) dies in a playground accident. That’s where I put the book down the first time.
Death, especially of a young character, is not something one comes across often in middle grade literature. From there the story takes on a surreal feeling. Ember’s uncle’s beloved dog dies and somehow he figures he can get his dog back — from the afterlife? It’s never completely clear — if he brings to that space another living creature. So he lures Ember there. This other world is just exactly like Ember’s neighborhood, except everything is gray tones. And sometimes she’ll see a creature, like a snail, suddenly dry up into ash and blow away.
Ember isn’t clear what’s going on, but she finds Ness sitting on her front stoop and is determined to bring her friend back to the land of the living.
This is where I put the book down a second time. This cannot end well, I thought to myself.
Given a few days, in which I gave myself some time to adjust mentally to the world Harrold was creating, I returned to the book.
I won’t give away the rest of the story, but I will say that after I changed gears and prepared myself for a story about death and the murky afterlife, I was ready to follow Ember and the other characters all the way to the resolution of the story.
There are definitely some twists and turns, some of which had me biting my nails, but the ending was satisfying. There is something about this author’s voice that is somber, even when we are simply on a playground or at a character’s house, and it suits this story very well.