Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Excerpt: The Knife and the Man Jack

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.

The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.

The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.

The man Jack paused on the landing. With his left hand he pulled a large white handkerchief from the pocket of his black coat, and with it he wiped off the knife and his gloved right hand which had been holding it; then he put the handkerchief away. The hunt was almost over. He had left the woman in her bed, the man was on the bedroom floor, the other child in her brightly colored bedroom, surrounded by toys and half-finished models. That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of. One more and his task would be done.

. . . . .

The man Jack's eyes were accustomed to the dim moonlight, so he had no desire to turn on an electric light. And light was not that important, after all. He had other skills.

The man Jack sniffed the air. He ignored the scents that had come into the room with him, dismissed the scents that he could safely ignore, honed in on the smell of the thing he had come to find. He could smell the child: a milky smell, like chocolate chip cookies, and the sour tang of a wet, disposable, nighttime diaper. He could smell the baby shampoo in its hair, and something small and rubbery--a toy, he thought, and then, no, something to suck--that the child had been carrying.

The child had been here. It was here no longer. The man Jack followed his nose down the stairs through the middle of the tall, thin house. He inspected the bathroom, the kitchen, the airing cupboard, and, finally, the downstairs hall, in which there was nothing to be seen but the family's bicycles, a pile of empty shopping bags, a fallen diaper, and the stray tendrils of fog that had insinuated themselves into the hall from the open door to the street.

The man Jack made a small noise then, a grunt that contained both frustration and also satisfaction. He slipped the knife into its sheath in the inside pocket of his long coat, and he stepped out into the street. There was moonlight, and there were streetlights, but the fog stifled everything, muted light and muffled sound and made the night shady and treacherous. He looked down the hill towards the light of the closed shops, then up the street, where the last high houses wound up the hill on their way to the darkness of the old graveyard.

The man Jack sniffed the air. Then, without hurrying, he began to walk up the hill.

(Excerpt from Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, Chapter One: How Nobody Came to the Graveyard.)

When I was a kid, I read every Goosebumps novel that my library owned. Then I graduated to the Fear Street series, also by R.L. Stine. I look back on those books now and wonder if they weren't a little repetitive, a little cliche. Stine's plots all involved things that dripped, oozed, shuddered, bumped and jumped out at you in the night. Perfect for sending chills down the spine of an eight year old.

But what about the story? What about the writing? Were they really any good?

Neil Gaiman's Newbery winning The Graveyard Book sends me into fits of shivers, not just because the idea of "the man Jack" stalking the baby is downright gruesome, but because Gaiman's writing is by turns haunting and amusing. Tendrils of fog and muted streetlamps are the stuff of many crime fiction novels and horror movies, but Gaiman employs them beautifully, mixing them in with less common descriptions like that of the baby's scent.

Inventive and well-written, The Graveyard Book is one of the best paranormal books for kids that I've ever read. (Full review to be posted either Friday or Saturday.)

What are your favorite paranormal books for kids? And how to do you feel about Gaiman versus R.L. Stine?


  1. I loved the Graveyard Book too. Neil Gaiman is a genius. I need to read more of his books. I don't think that you can fairly compare RL Stine and Gaiman. It's like comparing M&Ms to Valrhona chocolate. RL Stine is good fun, but it's just that. Funny enough, I wasn't nearly as spooked by The Graveyard Book as I was touched by his interactions with his ghostly family and Silas. I cried at the end.

  2. Good points all around -- comparing M&Ms to Valrhona is a little bit unfair. But I have to say, once I started eating Lindt chocolate on a regular basis, I wasn't able to enjoy a Kit Kat any more. They taste cheap to me now -- and the same thing with good literature vs. most of the serialized novels that I used to read as a kid. I still love my Nancy Drews, but I can't really enjoy the R.L. Stine or the Sweet Valley Twins any more. :-) I agree, though, Stine is just good fun for kids... his books definitely have their place.


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