I actually read this one, thinking it would go on my Middle Grade Halloweenish Books list, but it was quite a bit more scary than anything else on there, so it got booted to its own post. Also, I had a few more things to say about it, so I guess that worked out.
The Night Gardener: A Scary Story, by Jonathan Auxier
3 stars: Not my usual fare, but I liked it. Not going to read it to my kids at this point, though.
Molly and Kip are two orphan children, on their way to a new home. Molly has finangled her way into a place as maid and cook at Windsor manor house on its own little island.
However, once they get there (after many people have warned them away or refused to give them directions), they find that they're not really wanted. Molly will not let that deter her, though. This job was their last hope. She talks her way into it, with a few responsibilities on the side that Kip can manage, even with his crippled leg.
There's a huge tree that has roots and branches infiltrating right through the walls of the house, and she has seen a tall skinny man who looks like he's tending to the tree, but he only comes out at night. One frightening day she discovers that many of what she thought were branches sticking out of the trunk of the tree are actually the handles of weapons--swords, axes, and the like. Things just keep getting more strange.
They haven't been working there for long, when they notice some other odd things happening in the house. For one, not one of the family is well. They are all sickly and seem to be getting more so as time goes on. Also, something comes into the house at night. This... thing goes into every room, stops by every bed. Locked doors don't stop it. Pretty creepy.
Speaking of locked doors, there is one that Molly has been forbidden to open. The thing is, she finds a key that fits the lock. Before she really knows it, she too has been drawn into the thrall of the Tree. Like the others, what she receives is not free. The only question is--will any of them survive long enough to break away?
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So you can see how creepy the cover is--perfect for the book, I would say. Black, twisty-branched tree with a shadowy figure interposed on it. Yikes! In this book, the tree is basically its own entity--The Tree. It is an Evil Tree, no doubt about that. The home that it has corrupted is not a cozy, safe place of pleasant dreams. Oh no. It is a place of nightmares and a slow leaching of a person's vitality and life (and interestingly enough, hair color.)
Auxier does a good job of building suspense, often by little revelations that turn something the children have never noticed before into something sinister and dark. There are plenty of heart-pounding moments, feeling trapped in various ways, being chased by the Night Gardener, and of course, a big climax. I appreciated the writing, particularly as it wove in the power of stories and storytelling to this narrative of the cursed Tree. I liked Molly and Kip, too. It was very well done.
That being said, this is not one I'm going to read to my kids right now. I am 90% sure it would give them nightmares. I think it would have freaked me out at their age. We don't read scary books at all, really. Suspenseful books sometimes, but not creepy, spine-tingling, don't look behind you! types like this one. Although, I recently read a quote to the effect that you should read your kids books like this, to present darkness in a more manageable form, and to show them that they can defeat the darkness.
While I can see some validity to that statement, I disagree with it overall. Yes, there are hard things that kids will learn about, and learning them in a safe home environment with mom or dad to talk it over with is the ideal. However. There will always be plenty of darkness in this world that they will come up against. I certainly don't need to be the one introducing it!
Reading a book can be a very immersive experience. I am always open to discussing the scary or hard things, but I don't think they need to read about them--i.e., experience them--to be aware. At least, not until they are old enough to process them a bit more objectively. Also, I'm the one they wake up in the middle of the night when they've had a bad dream. So, there is that.
My theory is that if they are filled with light and goodness, they will be able to handle the darkness in all of its forms--including closing the book or turning off the movie if it's something that's making them feel frightened or uncomfortable. You can't defeat darkness with more darkness--and knowledge of it can only go so far. It takes light to overcome darkness.
Content: 2 murders (off-stage, but characters hear screaming and see the blood afterword). For ages 12+.
My friend Amy over at Sunlit Pages recently reviewed this one, as well! So for another opinion, head on over there!
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Okay, I'm ready for your thoughts and opinions! Talk to me about trees (evil or otherwise), this book, and reading scary books to your children on purpose. Ready, go!