The Spiderwick Chronicles

The Spiderwick Chronicles 


By Holly Black 
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner

    Anyone who has ever tried to induce a reluctant farm animal back into the pen knows that there are two basic means to the desired end, fear and bribery. Both of these means can take humane and sensible forms, from well trained sheep dogs in the fear line, to the expectation of grain on the bribery end.
   
 Parents, educators, librarians and other parties who take an interest in spurring reluctant readers into the pages of a book, experience many of the same frustrations which are the lot of those farm hands whose wayward charges are more inclined to eat carefully cultivated crops and ornamental shrubs, than the hay which has been set out for them.
   
 In his essay, Homer and the Study of Greek, Andrew Lang remarks that "I hated Greek with a deadly and sickening hatred; I hated it like a bully and a thief of time...Then we began to read Homer; and from the very first words...my mind was altered, and I was the devoted friend of Greek. Here was something worth reading about." Indeed, when it comes to reading enjoyment is everything and fear can enjoy only a short, and ultimately self defeating, success.
   
 There are three factors to consider in the enticement of reluctant readers, form, content, and perspective. First of all, the reader must be induced into the book, and here form is required, attractive design, good marketing and so forth. Once lured within the book, the content, as Lang makes clear, must be good in of itself, or the reader will beat a hasty, usually final retreat.
   
 When the contest is a near thing, and the reader wavers, perspective comes into play, encouragement and confidence. Editions of Malory’s Morte de Arthur which feature modernized and altered English describe their original as being as foreign and indecipherable to the general reader as Mesopotamian hieroglyphics. Eugene Vinaver’s edition, which preserves the original, offers the encouraging news, however, that, "for the general reader this is a much livelier book, and its fifteenth century English presents very few difficulties. The reader’s eye quickly becomes accustomed to the old spellings, which could not be modernized without destroying much of the essential period quality of this great early masterpiece of English literature."
   
 If we understand matters correctly then, a highly attractive, well designed book which features excellent content and an encouraging perspective should lure and capture reluctant readers like so many moths. As a test for this notion let us consider The Spiderwick Chronicles, by Tony DiTerlizzi, and Holly Black.
   
 The Spiderwick Chronicles, a series of five books aimed at 6-10 year olds, has been the beneficiary of an exceptionally clever marketing campaign to book buyers, and is wonderfully attractive in its cover design. The story revolves around an old, decaying mansion, with a pronounced faerie problem. The fact that the series design was clearly built around the runaway success of The Series of Unfortunate Events, featuring an embossed hardcover bindings, the adventures of three siblings, a handwritten letter from the characters to the authors asking that their story be told, and so forth, does not detract from its appeal, because the resemblance is in design only.
   
 The Spiderwick Chronicles is in fact a rare and desirable enterprise in its own right, in that it is short and welcoming to very young readers, manifestly manageable, while being long on interest in its content, so much so that it is pleasurable for readers of all ages. Diterlizzi, a Caldecott honor medalist for his Spider and The Fly, has filled the books with engaging illustrations modeled on the work of the late, great Arthur Rackham, to whom Diterlizzi dedicates the book. Black, a long time friend of Diterlizzi, contributes an excellent, stimulating narrative with appealing characters and rapid pacing.
   
 In short, The Spiderwick Chronicles are desirable in form, content and perspective. And I, having field tested it thoroughly at home and abroad, am able to report that our hypothesis has been borne out. The Spiderwick Chronicles powerfully attracts and holds the interest of young readers, delivering in them what anyone might hope for, a passion for reading more.