The first book in The Books of Elsewhere series has a tall order to fill: publicity materials compare author Jacqueline West to Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman. Luckily for readers, The Shadows does not disappoint. In her first book for young readers, West—who is also a poet—introduces a spooky, magical world that will captivate middle schoolers.
Olive Dunwoody, a shy and curious child, moves with her “dippy” mathematician parents into a Victorian mansion. Olive soon learns that they’re not alone in the dusty, antique-filled house. With talking cats as her guides, Olive discovers that she can come and go from paintings on the walls, as long as she’s wearing a certain pair of glasses. But the paintings hold a dangerous, life-or-death secret, and it’s up to Olive to figure out the mystery.
In an interview with BookPage, West elaborates on why she likes writing for kids, her preferred type of superpower and what to expect in the second book of the series.
The Books of Elsewhere: The Shadows is your first book for young readers, although you are an accomplished poet. Have you always wanted to write novels for kids?
When I started writing The Shadows, I was experimenting with all kinds of genres and forms—poetry, short fiction, scripts for a series of graphic novels (which no one ever needs to see), an adult novel (no one ever needs to see this, either)—and I’ll try to keep challenging myself this way. Focusing on writing for kids has been a huge pleasure, in part because I’m writing for my inner child rather than for my inner critic, but I know I’ll continue to write poetry, I’ve got drafts and notes for several middle grade and young adult books underway and maybe someday I’ll baffle myself by waking up with the plan for a three-act melodrama in my head.
Your book has been compared to works by Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman, and there are scenes reminiscent of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. What are your favorite books for children? Do any authors inspire your writing?
As a child, I read A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie, Roald Dahl and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes collections over and over so intently that I think they became part of my genetic makeup. I can still remember finishing Matilda for the first of many times. I was in the backseat of the family car, it was dark outside the windows and I felt as though my whole body was full of lit fireworks . . . It was that exhilarating. My favorite books for kids haven’t changed much—I still love Milne and Dahl and Shel Silverstein (I also deeply admire some writers who are currently working, like Gaiman and Rowling and Kate DiCamillo)—and I suppose it was the joy I got from reading these books that indirectly influenced me to write for kids myself.
The Shadows is filled with descriptions of paintings and antiques—do you have a particular interest in art? Did you do any research on art and architecture when writing the book?
This was drawn more from memory and imagination than from research. I’ve worked as an arts writer, and I’ve spent considerable time wandering in a happy daze through museums, so I had quite a lot of material stored up.
Throughout the book, Olive’s only companions are Morton, a boy from a painting, and three talking cats. Why does Olive have trouble making friends her own age, when she’s clearly funny and spunky?
The qualities that appeal to grown-ups aren’t necessarily the qualities that appeal to kids when making friends. Among kids, fitting in is generally more important than standing out, and even standing out in a good way can be a liability. Olive is shy and awkward, she has moved from place to place a lot and she’s the only child of parents who are more than a bit out of touch with the real world. She certainly hasn’t been prepared to fit in.
You have mentioned your interest in magic—talking cats, paintings as portals to another world. What sort of magical adventure would you like to go on; is there a power you’d like to have?
Back when I thought I might be a superhero when I grew up, I wanted to be a shape-shifter. Actually, I’d still like to be one. I know this is sort of like wishing for more wishes, because it’s one power that would come with all kinds of other powers: flying, breathing underwater, running at incredible speeds. But I’m greedy that way. I’d like to see the world from all different points of view, to experience life as a whole slew of people and animals and objects. Of course, this is the same reason I wanted to be a writer.
Do you believe that houses can really be haunted? Would you be delighted—or terrified—if you discovered your house was built on a graveyard (or came with a talking cat)?
Sadly, I’ve never had a personal experience with ghosts or haunted places. I’ve lived in several old houses and even in rooms where people had died, and I remember wishing that their ghosts would show up and keep me company and be my quirky roommates. But it never happened. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen . . .
Although The Shadows is magical (and often creepy), it also includes themes that are timeless and very real: trusting others, taking chances, being lonely. Are there any lessons (or types of encouragement) you hope kids take from the book?
I certainly didn’t write this with any type of lesson in mind, but I suppose any book in which a child protagonist has to solve her own problems lets the reader learn from her mistakes and her growth. I hope kids will identify with Olive and that getting to know her might make them feel a bit less alone or misunderstood or out of place. Aside from that, I just hope kids will be entertained.
How many books to you intend to write in the Books of Elsewhere series? Can you give us a hint about Olive and Morton’s next adventure?
The total number of books is still up in the air at this point, but I’d estimate four or five volumes in total. Volume Two is already written, so I can tell you that the house has some more big secrets waiting to be revealed, including an object that begins to take over Olive’s life. Olive also makes a friend who isn’t from a painting or covered in fur, and someone else—someone Olive thought she knew—turns out to have been fooling everyone all along.
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Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2010 Fall
Olive finds a pair of spectacles that let her enter the paintings in her family's decrepit Victorian mansion. There she finds cats who aren't quite feline and late homeowners who aren't quite dead. Even at their most dire--and darkly illustrated--Olive's circumstances are too fantastical to be really frightening; naive Olive figures it all out in time to regain control. Copyright 2010 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2010 May #2
Preoccupied parents, a solitary young girl, talking cats--sound familiar? Unfortunately for debut author West, not only has this been done before, it's been done better. Still, the premise is intriguing. Magical spectacles enable the wearer to enter the worlds captured in paintings created by an evil, long-dead wizard. "Captured" isn't just a figure of speech: At least one young boy has been turned into a painted replica of himself. Another painting, that of the wizard's (also dead) granddaughter, comes creepily to life. In general, though, the action is sluggish and the ominous atmosphere contrived. Characterization is skimpy at best. Olive's parents adore math. Olive doesn't. The cats are pompous, imaginative and martial, respectively. Ironically enough, it's not just the supernatural effects that fail to convince. Would parents, even those utterly obsessed with their own intelligence and interests, really leave their 11-year-old home alone overnight? The fact that they do precipitates Olive's final confrontation with the wicked wizard. Unfortunately readers probably won't care much about who wins nor about the possibility of volume two. (Fantasy. 10-12) Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Media Connection Reviews 2010 October
Eleven-year-old Olive and her parents have just moved into a spooky old house, complete with odd paintings. Olive finds a pair of glasses that make it possible for her to enter ?Elsewhere? through the paintings. She has tea in a painting with a charming young woman, the granddaughter of the house?s builder, a wicked magician. The granddaughter escapes from her painting and leaves Olive to die in an attempt to resurrect her grandfather. With the help of three talking cats, Olive is able to escape and ultimately destroy the magician. Olive has no special abilities, but she is surrounded by magical or mystical elements; as a result, she is a more relatable character than many protagonists in magical novels. The pacing is smooth, with believable dialog. Aside from Olive and the cats, however, the characters are drawn with broad strokes. Still, this is a delight and full of suspense, likely to be a hit with fans of magic fantasy. It seems clear that future volumes will explain the occasional oddly-emphasized character. Recommended. Susan A.M. Poulter, Cataloguing Librarian, Nashville (Tennessee) Public Library ¬ 2010 Linworth Publishing, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2010 May #5
Poet West's debut novel is a quirky and clever beginning to the Books of Elsewhere series. The Dunwoodys, "a pair of more than slightly dippy mathematicians," and their 11-year-old daughter, Olive, have just moved into an old Victorian house. Olive has learned to be independent, given her parents' aloofness ("Her persistently lackluster grades in math had led her parents to believe that she was some kind of genetic aberration"). She explores the house's eccentricities and discovers that, by donning a pair of spectacles, she can enter the house's many unsettling paintings. Inside one, she encounters nine-year-old Morton, who brings to her attention the secrets that the house and its late owner are keeping. With the help of three talking house cats, Olive works to patch together clues to save the painting-dwellers from their dark fate. The house is as much a character as are Olive, Morton, and her family, and a wicked sense of humor tempers the book's creepiness. A suspenseful plot and insight into childhood loneliness--handily amplified by Bernatene's moody and dramatically lit b&w illustrations--will have readers anxiously awaiting the next book. Ages 9-11. (June)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.
Gr 4-6--Olive Dunwoody and her mathematically minded parents move into an old Victorian home complete with the deceased owner's furnishings. Olive first notices that something is wrong when she can't take the paintings off the wall. She sees things moving in them. Then, while rummaging through the drawers, she finds a pair of glasses and tries them on. Olive can now enter the paintings and talk to the people in them. She is warned by a talking cat named Horatio not to spend too much time in there or to lose the glasses. She meets Morton in a painting and learns that he was forced into it because of a conversation he overheard. Olive is determined to find out more about the house and its history. But who can she trust? Her neighbors, the talking cats, or the people in the paintings? The expressive black-and-white illustrations contribute to the overall spooky mood of the story. The plot moves quickly as Olive pieces together clues. Recommend this book to reluctant readers and fans of Neil Gaiman's Coraline (HarperCollins, 2002).--Samantha Larsen Hastings, West Jordan Public Library, UT[Page 124]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.