Continuing our series of middle-grade fiction touted as possible Newbery winners:
Janie: Kenneth Oppel is best known for light-hearted steampunk fantasy, like the Airborn series and The Boundless. He showed us a bit of his dark side with This Dark Endeavor and Such Wicked Intent, the first two volumes of a trilogy about young Victor Frankenstein–but his latest takes terror to a new level. The Nest is also remarkable for the praise it’s gathered: six starred reviews, which in the children’s lit-world is nothing less than a grand slam. Of all the thousands of children’s books published every year, only a handful share that honor (usually less than ten). So The Nest is one of the buzziest of this year’s Newbery contenders, and to begin with, it’s very strange. Our hero Steve is a shy, fearful lad with few friends whose family life has become consumed by his baby brother. Little Theo has some kind of “condition,” which is never fully explained: his parents murmur words like rare, congenital, and degenerative. All Steve knows for sure is that there’s something wrong with the baby. A pall of dread lies over the household. So when a shining creature appears to Steve in a dream (or is it a dream?), he thinks it’s an angel. “We’ve come to help,” the creature says.
The only help he’s interested in is somehow “fixing” Theo. But that’s not exactly what the shining creature means. It’s hard to know how far to go with the spoilers here, but I will say that Steve’s mysterious visitor is the queen of a wasp colony (cue ominous buzzing) and what he’s experiencing is not a dream. Would you like to take it a little farther from there, Betsy?
Betsy: You’re right, Janie—this will be a very hard book to discuss without a spoiler alert. Let’s start with the strengths of Oppel’s writing: his spare prose (the book is a quick read for all its depth), his ability to fully spin a web and draw the reader in, and his strong thematic elements. Although he approaches his themes from a strange vantage point, Oppel’s essential point is one that we, as Christians, can fully embrace: each human life is valuable, regardless of its supposed weaknesses or disabilities. Steve himself struggles with anxiety and OCD-like tendencies, and, when given the opportunity to be “fixed,” he realizes that he’s content with who he is even when that same self is frustrating. In the same way, his baby brother is just right the way he is. Steve also realizes—and this is tremendously significant—that it is only in our weakness that we can truly empathize with and love those around us. The Bible makes this point about Christ himself: he has been tempted in every way we have been. He was fully man even while fully God. I suppose the big question is, are those thematic strengths worth the troublesome elements in the book?
Janie: Great insights; I especially like what you said about human weakness (which, to a Christian, is exactly where God displays his strength). But when a story lacks that broader theological context, the scariness is likely to overpower any sort of hopeful resolution. And let’s be clear: the story is seriously scary, not for sensitive readers of any age. Oppel doesn’t deliver cheap, obvious slasher-thrills like a Goosebumps novel; this brand of horror is the kind that creeps up on you as the sense of dread grows. I kept thinking it was all going to turn out to be a dream, or some manifestation of Steve’s worst imaginings, but no such luck. What the wasps have in mind—if they have minds at all—is a horrifying deed that they are quite able to carry out, and almost do. It’s gratifying to see Steve summon unsuspected reserves of courage for the final showdown, but the mindless malevolence of the enemy is more disturbing than a flesh-and-blood adversary with an axe to grind (even if it’s a literal axe!). Any thoughts on the symbolism here?
Betsy: We English teachers love to ask our students about symbolism! The truth is that, unless it’s a very common symbol, it’s hard to know what an author really intends. Disclaimer aside, as a Christian, I was struck by what the wasps could symbolize according to how the Bible describes dark supernatural forces masquerading as angels of light (II Cor. 11:14). This is an angle worth pursuing for those who do read this book, but it’s hard to go into specifics without completely spoiling the plot. I think that this element, though, is precisely what contributes to that horror aspect you’ve just discussed—and why it resonates as horror. The issue of trust is a big factor in the story. One of the truths Christians cling to is that God is 100% faithful—even when circumstances might seem otherwise. The only “transcendent” or “supernatural” beings in Oppel’s story turn out to be either impotent (the force for good) or deceptive (the force for evil). An interesting contrast to this is something like Aslan’s confession to Shasta in The Horse and His Boy, when he reveals that he was the lion who chased Shasta, who clawed Aravis, and who also guided them the whole way.
Janie: I like that comparison! And I’ll add that there is some religious symbolism in the story, for instance a resurrection reference in the last chapter. And Steve engages in something like prayer, though it’s not clear who he is praying to. But here’s the point: the symbolism, plot, terror elements, and theme are all fun for us grownups to talk out, but what’s it going to mean to the intended readers? I’m not sure most middle-graders have the reading experience or life experience to sort the relevance of the story from the harrowing impact of the story itself, and while these themes are definitely worthy of discussion, parents should exercise some discernment. If you have a young reader who freaks out every time he hears wasps buzzing in the attic, this is not the book for him.
Up next: The Thing about Jellyfish