Skulls & Ghosts & Black Cats (Oh My!)
September 24, 2015 § 2 Comments
Wherever you fall on the “free range” versus “helicopter” parenting debate, I think we can all agree that the former makes for much more exciting fiction. After all, kids do way cooler stuff outside the watchful eyes of their parents. When I was growing up, my favorite chapter books—spooky, suspenseful titles, like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Children of Green Knowe—starred children who were forever falling down the Rabbit Hole of grave danger. The appeal, of course, lay in watching them wrangle their way out again—oftentimes, without their parents even noticing that they were gone.
This past summer, my son and I were looking for read-aloud inspiration at our local bookstore, when we happened upon Missing on Superstition Mountain, the first book in a newly completed trilogy by Elise Broach (Ages 9-12). I have always heard wonderful things about Broach’s writing, but it was the subject of these books that quickly sold us. Three brothers (ages six, ten and eleven), having relocated with their parents from Chicago to rural Arizona at the dawn of summer, begin exploring the mountainous terrain in their backyard, more out of sheer boredom than owing to any strong desire to go against their parents’ stern warnings. Before long, the children find themselves in the center of a centuries-old unsolved mystery—involving murder, ghost towns, and buried treasure.
In short, these books seemed like the perfect ticket to a Summer of Literary Adventure.
Indeed, they were. And yet, with summer now behind us, I see no reason why these books can’t be your children’s entree to a Spooky Fall. After all, with October almost upon us, it seems only appropriate to arm your young readers with a ghoulish graveyard scene, or a black cat who may or may not have been reincarnated for the purpose of taking her revenge.
This is where I feel obliged to insert a word of caution. These books are not for the faint of heart. There were more than a few moments when, as I was reading them aloud, my stomach began to knot for fear that I might be scaring my son out of his pants (certainly, I seemed to be scaring him under his sheets, for he listened to a good part of each book with the sheets pulled over this head). Still, as much as JP would gasp and shriek—Broach is a master of ending nearly every single chapter with a cliffhanger—he always begged me to read on.
As far as I know, he never had any nightmares.
And, trust me: some of this stuff is the stuff of nightmares. How about coming face to face with rattlesnakes and mountain lions? How about nearly getting buried alive by a rock avalanche in an ancient gold mine? How about stumbling upon eerie warning messages inscribed in the dirt, or watching a rock splinter apart from a gunshot just inches from your head?
Or how about the fact that Broach has based her books (as the Afterward points out) on an actual real life place—Superstition Mountain—with a history of unsettling legends and folklore that involve the Apache Indians, Spanish explorers, and gold rush prospectors? That’s right. To my son’s absolute astonishment, what happens to these contemporary children could kinda sorta happen to anyone.
And yet, still no nightmares.
I have a theory on why JP was able to grasp the classic horror elements of these stories without completely cowering. And this reason speaks to something prominent in much of the best middle-grade fiction (including, coincidentally, the Harry Potter books, to which Broach makes many references).
The charm of this trilogy lies in its rich and realistic character development.
Child readers will be able to see a bit of themselves reflected in every one of Broach’s young protagonists. The three brothers—along with a savvy girl-neighbor named Delilah, who quickly joins forces with the boys—react to situations as anyone of their age might. For starters, they never take no for an answer, and they never for one second stop asking questions.
This is free-range parenting at its best (or most unrealistic—you can take your pick): a pack of kids, high on adrenaline and outside parental supervision, must become their best selves in order to survive. They must listen to one another; they must compromise; they must aid and support one another. They must decide when to be deliberate and when to be rash.
To accomplish this, they must also work through sibling dynamics (the pitfalls of being the eldest, middle, and youngest are keenly exploited here); they must question gender stereotypes (Delilah shows them up more than once); and they must make up their own minds about which adults to trust and which to doubt (starting with the nosy librarian with the saccharine-sweet voice).
Think of these books as a kind of moral compass for young readers.
Missing on Superstition Mountain, Treasure on Superstition Mountain, and Revenge on Superstition Mountain might make the hair stand up on the back of your child’s head—but, ultimaetly, they are stories about kids being kids and coming out on top. Kindness, collaboration, curiosity, determination, resourcefulness, attention to detail: these are the qualities that prevail. These are the traits which feel so deliciously tangible to the young reader. They inspire, they comfort, and they give hope that each one of us possesses the power to make our own adventures—and then to find our way safely home again.
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