School Library Journal
Gr 4–7—When her grandmother dies, Sarah's family spends a week traveling by car from California to get the dusty and smelly house cleaned up and ready for sale. Sarah's mother has no fond memories of her childhood home or her mother, and the dark corners and strange noises spook timid Sarah. When she finds an unfinished letter written by the grandmother she never knew that refers to "strange things happening behind the bookcase," she is curious and shimmies the bookcase from against the wall and travels to a strange land called Scotopia, where she meets a talking cat, a boy with half a face, a walking hand, and all sorts of strange creatures. This fantasy takes the creepiness of Neil Gaiman's Coraline (HarperCollins, 2002), mixes it liberally with the surrealism of Alice in Wonderland, and adds a dash of Edward Gorey through moody black-and-white illustrations. Readers who are patient with the seeming randomness will soon be rewarded with a suspenseful, magical adventure that, while there is resolution, ends with a promise of a sequel. Sarah and her brother bicker constantly and initially work against each other but soon join forces to prevent the destruction of both our world and Scotopia.—Brenda Kahn, Tenakill Middle School, Closter, NJ
In Steensland’s lackluster debut, 11-year-old Sarah, who identifies herself as “cautious”—maybe even “a scaredy-cat,” as her annoying eight-year-old brother taunts—shows her courage when her late grandmother’s house turns out to be as haunted as it appears. Arriving from California with her family to prepare Grandma Winnie’s dilapidated house for sale, Sarah discovers an unfinished letter from her grandmother, which expresses the worry that “Strange things are happening behind the bookcase” in her bedroom. Intrigued, Sarah begins exploring, and falls into the land of Scotopia, “where shadows come from,” peopled by such creatures as a one-eyed giant hand and ruled by Balthazat, a talking cat. Adventures come fast and furious as Sarah—who instantly and inexplicably morphs into an adventurous, brave, and steadfast child—travels between reality and a trio of fantasy lands (eerily imagined by Murphy in b&w spot art), narrowly escaping dangers as she strives to secure the balance of the world. While Steensland’s story has a quick pace and occasional surprises, there’s little to distinguish it from others in the genre. Ages 8–12. Agent: Jenny Bent, the Bent Agency. (Oct.)
Children's Literature - Bonita Herold
Ivy likes to listen in on conversations, particular between her mother and Aunt Maureen. She learns so much that way. It is how she knows that it is the end of the line for her stepfather, even before her mother tells her. To make ends meet, her mother becomes a waitress and takes on a boarder, Caleb, who is Ivy's age. Ivy's convinced that Caleb lies and is so weird that even his parents' do not want him. Ever since he moved in, her world has turned upside down. Of course, that has more to do with her changing relationship with her best friend, with her now-working mother, with her little brother JJ, and even with the interim pastor of their local church. And who is the real liar? In this book about growing up, twelve-year-old Ivy has to face the hard reality that things change. Middle-grade girls will lose themselves in this novel because Ivy represents an "every girl." Reviewer: Bonita Herold
What is behind the bookcase? A black tunnel that is a secret portal to an adventure for a girl and her younger brother. When Sarah's family arrives at her grandmother's house to get it ready to sell, strange sounds and sensations begin immediately. As she's packing boxes, Sarah discovers an unfinished letter from her grandma with the words, "Strange things are happening behind the bookcase." Of course, Sarah investigates the tunnel and lands in Scotopia, which is ruled by the talking King of the Cats, Balthazat. She becomes the key figure in a battle of good versus evil as dangerous creatures attempt to foil Sarah's efforts to keep the malignant cat from unleashing the sleeping souls locked inside the house. The fantasy characters are inventive: an enormous hand on legs called Lefty; sentinels whose eyes and mouths are stitched shut and carry heads for lanterns; a boy with half his face missing; and a giant bat with a boy's face. However, the humans are stock figures, and plot elements are derivative. The black-and-white drawings attempt to be Gorey-esque but fail to meet that standard. Though the title and cover are promising, the writing is muddled with too many conveniently trumped-up figures. Stick with any of John Bellairs' books for a skillful gothic tale. (Fantasy. 8-12)
Read an Excerpt
Truth be told: the place looked creepy. Sarah simply couldn’t believe that anyone she knew--let alone some-one from her very own family--could have anything to do with such a house. Never in her life had she seen such a disaster. The puke-green paint was peeling. The lawn (what there was of it) was more brown than green. The flower beds were overrun with weeds. The roof was missing so many shingles it looked like a checkerboard. The driveway was cracked. The steps were sagging. It was awful, made even worse by the fact that they would be celebrating her twelfth birthday in it. Even though they had just spent an entire week in the car, driving here from California, Sarah would have gladly turned right around and gone back home.
“This is it?” she asked, just to be sure, hoping they had somehow made a mistake, that they had turned onto the wrong street and this wasn’t really Grandma Winnie’s house at all.
In the front seat, Mom and Dad exchanged a long look and then Dad said grimly, “Afraid so.”
Sarah’s younger brother, Billy, meanwhile, was wearing a huge smile, which got even bigger when Dad confirmed that this was indeed where they would be spending the summer. “Awesome!” Billy said, with a reverence that thoroughly annoyed his sister.
“What could be awesome about this?”
“Look at it,” he said. “It’s like a haunted house.”
“Billy,” Dad said. “Don’t say that.”
“But it is!” he insisted.
“I’m sure it’s just because Grandma wasn’t feeling well the last few years. She couldn’t keep the house up.”
“No, honey,” Mom said. “It’s always been like this. That’s why the bullies called me Creepy Carol in school. Now can you understand why I wanted to leave as soon as I could? And get as far away as possible?”
Dad tried to put his arm around Mom, but she opened the passenger door and got out of the car quickly. Dad gave Billy one last sour look and then got out with her.
“What’s wrong with them?” Billy asked.
“This is where Mom grew up,” Sarah said. “Her mom died in there. Do you think she liked hearing you say it looks haunted?”
“Oh,” Billy said, his smile suddenly evaporating into a look of timid shame. “I didn’t think of that.”
“Of course not,” Sarah snapped. “You don’t think of anyone but yourself.”
“That’s not true.”
“Prove it,” Sarah said as she grabbed her backpack and opened her door.
The air outside the car was hot and humid. Where they were from in Southern California, it was hot, but not wet like this. Sarah felt as if her mouth were pressed against a damp towel.
Billy got out of the car behind her and went over to where their parents were standing. “Sorry, Mom,” he said. “I didn’t mean it the way it came out.”
Mom patted Billy on the head. “It’s okay,” she said with a sniffle. “I understand.” She faced the house, shielding her eyes from the sun with one hand. “In a way, I’m glad you like it. At least one of us does.”
Mom and Dad turned away and started toward the front door. Billy faced his sister and stuck his tongue out at her. She rolled her eyes and joined their parents on the steps.
Mom fished in her purse until she found a yellow envelope. After Grandma Winnie had died, Mom had gotten a whole bunch of these yellow envelopes in the mail. When Sarah had asked about them, Mom had explained that they were from lawyers telling her about things she had to do to settle Grandma’s affairs. The biggest of all these things was selling the house. That was why they were there. Mom and Dad had decided they would do what they could to fix it up before they sold it. But now that Sarah had actually seen it, she didn’t think one summer would be enough time to fix the house. Not unless they rented a bulldozer and just pushed it flat.
Mom opened the envelope and took out a key. While Dad held the squeaking screen door, she put the key in the lock, turned it, and pushed the front door open.
A gust of cool air came out of the darkness beyond and swept over all of them. To Sarah it felt like running through the sheets hanging on the laundry line in their backyard at home. In fact, it felt so much like something--or someone--pushing past her that Sarah gasped a little and stepped back. Was Billy right? Was Grandma’s house haunted?
Mom and Dad looked at each other again and Sarah could tell they had felt it, too. Mom just stood there, as if she were frozen in place.
“Honey?” Dad said. “Are you okay?”
Mom nodded slowly, then turned around. “Sarah?” she said. “You want to go first?”
Sarah shook her head quickly. The cool air wasn’t the only thing spooking her. Maybe it was because the June sun was so bright, but the darkness beyond the open front door looked as thick as a pool of swirling oil.
“I will!” Billy shouted, and pushed his way past Sarah and up the steps.
Dad couldn’t help but laugh as Billy went in. Sarah didn’t think it was funny at all. Instead, she was seized with the desire to grab her brother by the shoulder and pull him back. She was afraid that once he touched the darkness, it would suck him in like a whirlpool. She had to stop him.
But it was too late. He was gone.