I tend to choose books from my eclectic reading list on a whim, but lately, in part because I’m preparing to write my youngest protagonist ever and in part because I was inspired by fellow author Aubrey Cann, who is doing the same, I’ve been on something of a Middle Grade kick. It’s been a long time since I’ve read MG and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but that was the point: to rediscover and explore.
And what an exploration it has been.
Only three books into my MG expedition, I encountered The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand. I LOVE THIS BOOK. Creepy, compelling, and spearheaded by a haughty perfectionist whose greatest weapons are her standards, Cavendish is an unexpected, nightmarish delight that both charms and chills.
Author: Claire Legrand
Julie’s rating: ****
In the cobblestoned town of Belleville, everything is picturesque. Neighborhoods are well-kept, inhabitants are rich and successful, and twelve-year-old Victoria Wright is at the top of her class.
Life would be perfect if her classmates didn’t keep disappearing.
When Victoria’s best and only friend Lawrence Prewitt vanishes, too, it’s up to her to get to the bottom of things. There is something unusual, after all—something eerie, something sinister—about the things that have been happening lately: the missing children who her classmates can’t seem to remember, the too-bright smiles and glassy-eyed looks of parents and teachers when she asks about them, the warning note her own housekeeper silently slips to her at breakfast: “Be careful.” Something in Belleville is wrong. Very wrong.
And that something resides at Nine Silldie Place, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls.
I’ve already said I loved the book. Here are a few reasons why:
1. The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is all over that Coraline, Tim Burton-y quality of magical darkness. I LOVE IT. There’s even a hint of Matilda to it, though Victoria has no superpowers (excepting her infamous withering look, which tends to help her get her way).
2. The Home. Inside the orphanage is like a living bad dream: the walls whisper and move. Mirrors play tricks. Painted crows with human hands come to life and swoop down at you. Hallways stretch and redecorate, passages and rooms appear and disappear and change. At times the Home seems to speak and breathe and have a heartbeat. And if you hum in its presence…Well, find out at your own risk!
3. Victoria as lead. This twelve-year-old KICKS BUTT. She’s snobbish and proud (her biggest problem before Lawrence goes missing is getting a B and losing her spot at the top of the class) and yet wholly loveable. When she marches into the nightmare she does it with her head held high, willing herself above fear and refusing to be intimidated. Her indignation at everything from an annoying, yapping dog to the shocking horrors of Mrs. Cavendish’s Home is both endearing and sympathy-garnering. I really found myself rooting for her.
And finally, separate from the writing but an amazing experience for me nonetheless: the illustrations. For one thing, it’s been a very long time since I’ve read a chapter book that was illustrated, so nostalgically-speaking that was pleasant and unexpected. For another, Sarah Watts’ works really were quite charming on their own (again: something of that elegant Tim Burton-y beauty and darkness). But what was coolest for me was a new sense of appreciation. As I’ve been experimenting with handdrawn images–> Photoshop in recent months, I found myself noticing things about Watts’ pictures I would not have observed before. The pencil-like quality of some strokes, while others were solid. Places where color was inverted (white on black rather than black on white). The way everything was arranged together, and how many lines were not clean or straight but everything still looked phenomenal.
See: Mrs. Cavendish smiled. “I make a point of knowing all the children in the area. Professional interest, you know.”