June 19, 2009

Wait Till Helen Comes

Questions are from my Survey of Children's Lit. assignment:

What did you feel?

I felt like these were the worst parents I've read about in a long time and that Molly was one of the more whiny twelve-year-olds. She's also not one of the brightest girls I've met in fiction either. If she can be so manipulated by her five-year-old step-sister, then it's almost surprising that the book ended as well as it did for her.

The parents are a couple of head-in-clouds artists that should seriously be prosecuted for neglect. I'm all for free-range children but when your obviously traumatized five-year-old clearly hates her step-siblings or you're dumb enough to believe that the older step-siblings are harassing her, then why would you leave them all alone together? It didn't make much sense. First of all, they needed better communication; barring that, they could have at least gotten some therapy.

Molly was so naive it was getting ridiculous. She made it seem like she'd never had a problem in the world with her brother and she fell for every generic "gotcha" sibling trick Heather pulled on her. When it got to the point where Heather snuck out of the house the first time, she could have gotten a lot more mileage from yelling to her parents than following the kid. Maybe then they would have realized Heather needed adult supervision at the very least. She also had the problem of not understanding how whiny and crazy she was sounding to her family. Whether there's really a ghost or not, they clearly didn't believe it so she should have given up trying to convince them of that and just worked on getting them to pay attention to what was going on with the little one.

I know this is a children's book and I'm responding to it as an adult reader, so let me be fair. I can see why this is such a popular and beloved book for kids. My students would eat it up. The fourth and fifth graders are always looking for scary stories beyond the goosebumps level, but are not yet ready for Clive Barker. I recall seeing that silly Titanic movie from the last decade and overhearing some teenage girls go on about how it was the best movie they'd ever seen. They were young, so maybe it was indeed the best movie they'd ever seen. To me this book is full of stereotypical and generic gothic tropes, but to an 8-12 year old who was encountering this kind of tale for the first time it would be good and frightening. Hahn certainly has the pacing down and knows all the ingredients to throw in.

What did you notice?

I guess I noticed all the things a younger reader wouldn't. I noticed what terrible parents the adults were. I noticed how shoddy the police work was. I noted the near impossibility of Helen's parent's skeleton's to still be intact a hundred and fifty some years later. I noticed I started to wonder how no one, not even a half-corporeal spirit, had not found these two skeletons before. I know all this sounds picky, and I'm sure this kind of thing would slip by younger readers, so I don't want to dwell on that stuff.

I also noticed that Hahn knew just where to draw the line, playing on a young person's fears of death and ghosts and such without giving these elements too much power. The ghost of Helen can only do so much and can be defeated easily enough. She can talk loners into drowning like some spiritual cult leader, but she can't force the unwilling or apparently even cross property lines so there are safe limits.

What were you reminded of?

I was reminded of the scary stuff I went for when I was younger. I skipped over this kind of book and went straight for Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Lovecraft and Poe. Now those were some scary stories! Well, maybe not the Lovecraft. Those were kind of funny, actually. But I remember having nightmares from Bradbury's "Mars Is Heaven." That was creepy.

I've heard that Hahn's new book, Closed for the Season, is a non-supernatural thriller invloving a creepy closed down theme park (a la Bradbury). I may check that out to see if I enjoy her work more without the supernatural elements.

I like what Roger Sutton, editor of The Horn Book, had to say in praise of the actual scariness of this ghost and the children who read about her: "The fact that Helen wins children's choice awards across the country give me hope for the future: kids who can handle it are exactly the kind I want around to take care of things when the lights go out" (Sutton, 2009).

Sutton, Roger. "Read Roger: Futures trading for writers." The Horn Book, Inc. / Publications about books for children and young adults. 9 Feb. 1924. 17 June 2009 .