Thursday, March 26, 2009

The World of John Bellairs

This blog is a bit like a secretary desk into which bills and correspondence have been stuffed willy nilly…because of neglect I keep reaching into an overflowing pigeonhole and pulling stuff out only to go, yikes, I meant to deal with that months ago. Come to think of it, that kind of describes my brain.


One of the topics I see I meant to get to back last fall was the work of John Bellairs. I somehow missed these in my own adolescence, although I did give some to my nephew when he was in grade school (at least partly because of the oh-so-cool Edward Gorey covers). Last fall the Budza, then eight, and I started reading them as part of the evening story ritual, which involves about an hour of reading aloud with me, and telling stories out loud with my husband. So far we’ve read five mysteries about Johnny Dixon: The Chessmen of Doom (1989), The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt (1983), The Eyes of the Killer Robot (1986), The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, and The Curse of the Blue Figurine (1983) as well as one mystery starring Anthony Monday, The Lamp from the Warlock’s Tomb (1988). We aren’t as enamoured by the Lewis Barnavelt ones. For my part, the Dixons are the best, and it’s completely because of the relationship between Johnny and his neighbor and mentor and best friend, Roderick Childermass.

Could anyone invent a character like Professor Childermass now, or a relationship like the one he has with teenaged Johnny? Imagine trying to pitch a novel for this age range (older middle-grade to YA) in which a kind of shy, lonely boy is allowed to go off for the weekend in the company of his somewhat elderly bachelor neighbor, who loves to have Johnny over to his house to play chess and who has hobby baking cakes. Can’t quite see it? It’s why these books are something of a miracle. Childermass throws tantrums. He smokes. He is socially awkward. And he loves Johnny dearly. All the family relationships and friendships are beautifully rendered, but not in a manner that ever gets in the way of the really good shivery gothic storytelling. They are not really mysteries and not really horror, but a category I think of as supernatural and psychological suspense. And no one, in my book, has done it quite as well as Bellairs, with the same humor and humanity. The portraits of flawed adults remind me of Louise Fitzhugh's sequel to Harriet the Spy, The Long Secret, which I think is a better book. It cast quite a spell on me when I was 10 or 11, because it showed adults I recognized from the rather odd hothouse childhood of embassy life in the tropics.

Some of the books remain in print, and can be found new, but this is one of those cases where I really like to find a not too worn copy and give it a home. Bellairs mysteries are something that are easy to find in a used bookstore just about anywhere, and he was prolific enough that you can almost always find one you haven’t read yet, and if you're lucky, two or even three. And the there are more being written all the time as Brad Strickland continues to write about the Bellairs characters. I have yet to read one of the new ones, to judge how well he pulls it off, but my hopes are high.

Bellairs has a fervent following online. A good place to start is

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Let's Get Lost

I have been leading the creative writing after-school club at my son's elementary school. A talented group of three boys and four girls, 4th through 6th grades. I started them off writing shipwreck diaries, and they are having a great time with the diary format and making maps of their islands and other kinds of undiscovered countries. I told them a little about Alexander Selkirk, the supposed inspiration for Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. There doesn't seem to be a good kids' book about Selkirk, and if the information available online is only half true, it's an amazing oversight. I also learned something I think I'd known and forgotten, that "Swiss Family Robinson" isn't about a Swiss family named Robinson at all, but rather "robinson" was a noun describing a genre of adventure novel that became extremely popular the wake of the success of Robinson Crusoe.

At the same time, my third grader has gotten deeply into the Discovery TV series Treasure Quest, about the commercial marine archaeology/salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration, a commercial shipwreck salvage company. We are all glued to the set watching the ROV Zeus explore various wrecked passenger ships, U-boats, and steamboats. Will they find gold? Low-alpha lead bars worth more than gold? Skeletons?

It prompted my son to ask for a book he's had for a while and never really gotten into, Duncan Cameron's Shipwreck Detective. The book had been a hit with a friend's son who was laid up with a long recuperation, but Budza had never really gotten into it. Now is the perfect time. It's one of those marvels of paper engineering, with lots of bits and pieces to take out and examine, a la The Jolly Postman or Griffin & Sabine, and now used to great success in the Ologies series from Candlewick. This one comes with a removable compass and a blank diving log. When we're done with Shipwreck Detective, I will try him on some of the classic survival in the wildnerness stories. The one I remember reading was Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain, but more recently there had been Gary Paulsen's gripping Hatchet (not for the faint of heart) and Kensuke's Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo. Substitute for "shipwreck" any misadeventure that can leave the hero stranded in a strange place and you have the makings of a good robinson. Or should we start a campaign to call them selkirks?

Will I be able to coax Budza to scuba lessons at our local dive shop? He will need to learn to swim, first. I the meantime, we can enjoy the deep vicariously. Or build our own ROV.

If exploring by ROV floats your own boat, don't miss the following blogs:
Karen Romano Young's fabulous ocean science blog, Bubble and Squeak
The "live dive" blog over at National Geographic's Shipwreck Central
The maritime archaeology blog at from the Underwater Blogger at the Museum of Underwater Archaeology