School of Fear
Little, Brown Young Readers (2009)
Reviewed by Maggie Desmond-O’Brien (age 14) for Reader Views (9/09)
There’s fear and then there’s a phobia, as the family, friends and even minor acquaintances of Madeleine Masterson, Theodore Bartholomew, Lulu Punchalower and Garrison Feldman have found out the hard way. With few options left, their parents elect to send them to the top-secret and extremely exclusive School of Fear, run by the more than slightly batty Mrs. Wellington. When their treatment turns out to be far more terrifying than their fears, the foursome realizes that they are in for a very frightful summer indeed!
From the first page, this book has all the dry wit of Lemony Snicket and the delightful wackiness that you can imagine a children’s novel by Terry Pratchett might have. Though the story was slow to take off, I was enchanted by Gitty Daneshvari’s clever writing and her endearing, albeit highly caricatured, protagonists.
One bone to pick, though, was how detached the story felt—I was never racing through it like I did for “A Series of Unfortunate Events” even though in some ways it’s a better book (certainly less depressing). However clever a book is, it needs some empathy to make it work, and despite how cute and funny the characters in “School of Fear” were they were not as likable or relatable as the ones in Snicket’s series. It also could have done with some editorial streamlining to get rid of the long and mostly irrelevant buildup to going to the school. I would have rather seen more action within School of Fear’s walls than hear about the foursome’s escapades outside of them.
Despite those relatively minor flaws, fans of the emerging genre of creepy-crawly comedy will definitely not want to miss this one. After reading the back cover blurb I was anticipating a much more frightening read than it actually was, so horror fans will probably be disappointed if they pick it up in a bookstore; but scaredy-cats like me will be able to laugh at the protagonists’ predicaments almost 100% scare-free. The fear factor certainly doesn’t approach the levels of the “Harry Potter” novels or even some of the tamer list toppers like “Twilight” and Rick Riordan’s “Olympians” series. I’d say that kids as young as eight or nine would be able to enjoy it.
All in all “School of Fear” is a witty, funny and extremely enjoyable read for the phobic within us all that is sure to be a huge hit with the middle grade and younger teen crew. Gitty Daneshvari is definitely an author to watch!
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