Title: The Peculiar
Author: Stefan Bachmann
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction (Ages 9-12)
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Publication Date: September 18, 2012
ARC: 376 pages
Is There a Pooka in This Book? Yes, for about a nanosecond.
Before I begin my review of The Peculiar in earnest, I have to admit that when I began reading I was not in earnest. In fact, I was barely even literate. I was a gloopy, gloppy, slow-moving, slow-thinking impostor fey. You see, I’d attended the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in my hometown the day before — and Pookas are Irish. Needless to say, it was a day of great celebration. I saw friends I hadn’t seen in a year, I traversed dearly-missed streets and byways, and I drank beer. I drank a lot of beer. Because you know what Irish rabbits love? Hops.
But I’ve been consuming more books than I have hops of late, so the next day I was rewarded with something that Irish rabbits don’t love (with something that nobody loves): a hangover. I woke up the next morning, wiped the drool off of my chin, flopped myself out of bed, grabbed the book I’d been planning on starting, flopped myself onto the couch, cracked open the cover, and found that I was not at all capable of intelligent thought. Not even after several aspirin and several thousand gulps of sweet, hydrating water could I follow the simple trajectory of a sentence. I needed something more basic than my planned-upon read. Something for those whose brains hadn’t finished developing yet. Fortunately, I have a vast supply of children’s books at the ready – a whole bookcase full of ARCS (advance reading copies of books that have yet to be published) that I got for free while working at Barrington Books. So I flopped on the floor in front of the bookcase (I did a lot of flopping that day), put my head on the floor, cast my eyes upward, and started searching.
What I found, unintentionally and strangely enough, was another story set in an unfamiliar-looking London. This London was one into which a door had been opened from Fairyland many years earlier. Wild, untamed fairies spilled through the entrance then, destruction lying in their wake. Though the destruction was a natural result of the opened door, a door which the fairies had not caused to open, they were unjustly blamed for it. What followed was a violent and bloody war, “called ‘The Smiling War’ because it left so many skulls, white and grinning, in the fields” (5). After suffering many deaths, the humans realized that fairies had their weaknesses: industrialization of wild land, tolling bells, clockwork, and iron. They utilized these weapons to the fullest, organizing society around these found principles, and robbing the first fairies of their magical abilities. “And after a time the fairies were simply a part of England, an inseparable part, like the heather on the bleak gray moors, like the gallows on the hilltops. The goblins and wilder fairies were quick to pick up English ways. They lived in English cities, coughed English smoke, and were soon no worse off than the thousands of human poor that toiled at their side. But the high fairies — the pale, silent Sidhe with their fine waistcoats and sly looks — they did not give in so easily. They could not forget that they had once been lords and ladies in great halls of their own. They could not forgive” (8). The Peculiar is set in this vague “after a time”-time, presumably during the Victorian era, and its story revolves around one such fairy who has not forgotten or forgiven, his selfishness and arrogance, his thirst for power, the new war he plans, and the two unlikely heroes who get in his way.
If this villain-fairy hadn’t been so obviously evil, I would’ve had a difficult time choosing which side to be on. I can’t say that I approve of humans stripping fey of their powers. It’s rude. But the way this guy went about getting his comeuppance, manipulating the cause for personal gain, and, oh, killing children?! That was dead-wrong.
What Made the Story Totally Worth Eating:
1) It plays with the traditional “coming-of-age” story format.
I liked that Bartholomew Kettle’s “coming-of-age” story (that of a young boy) is mirrored by Arthur Jelliby’s (that of someone who’s supposed to already be a “man”). Bachmann shows that sometimes adults need to “grow up” even more than children do. When we first encounter Mr. Jelliby, he’s a careless, pampered, coddled, trust-fund-baby-turned-politician. He sleeps ’til noon, ignores the responsibilities his job is supposed to entail, knows nothing about the world, enjoys his time at “the club,” and prides himself on being “a pleasant, vacant sort of person. The sort of person you could invite to parties without having to worry about him bringing up sore topics like fairy integration or Charles Dickens’s novels” (95). He doesn’t want to save the world. He doesn’t want to bring justice to a downtrodden race. “Mr. Jelliby didn’t want to know who was murdering the children. They were changelings, after all. They were far away, and he had never known them, and he had his own troubles” (109). Through luck (or lack thereof) and happenstance, it falls to him to save the day, however. And because he’d never been a bad person (just socially-irresponsible and immature), he concedes to the task. When he meets a woman who begs him to help her, he reasons, “He owed it to her to do something. He supposed he could rescue her. Very subtly, of course” (128). Though he wishes he could just go home and “drink brandy as if nothing had ever happened” (165), he doesn’t. And he becomes a better person. And Bartholomew’s role as hero is almost as unlikely. As someone who’s always had to hide from the world – as a half-breed, he’s despised by both humans and fairies, and his mother’s always told him “Don’t get yourself noticed and you won’t get yourself hanged” – he feels no obligation to those inhabiting it. He takes up the hero role only because he wants to save someone who’s near and dear to him; he doesn’t care at all about the general population. Except, of course, that he comes to.
2) There’s a ridiculous allusion to “The Princess & the Pea.”
Mr. Jelliby is the princess.
3) It made me think about Children’s Literature, censorship, and what’s “appropriate.”
According to the publisher’s note included in my ARC, Stefan Bachmann “started writing The Peculiar in 2010, when he was sixteen years old. He wanted to write something, he [said], that he would have loved when he was a kid.” The book’s targeted demographic, according to Amazon, is ages 9 & up. There’s a review on the front of the book from Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series, which is wildly popular with the 9-12 age bracket.
The library-world seems to be more torn-up about who The Peculiar is for, with some libraries placing it in their children’s collection and some cataloging it, instead, as a young adult read. I can understand why there’s this difference, since Amazon is a huge, successful, impersonal business, whereas library staff has to deal with parental reactions on a very personal level.
So, as someone who works in a Children’s Library, am I going to be recommending this book to 9-year olds? I don’t know. I guess it depends on the 9-year old — and the parents of the 9-year old. There are some aspects of the book that are garish and horrid. Children are kidnapped, murdered, and disemboweled. I bet I’ll recommend it rarely, if at all. That being said, I would have loved it as a kid. I saw “Carrie” when I was 7 years old, watched “Melrose Place” on a regular basis, and started trading dirty sex novels with my best friend’s mom when I was barely a teenager, and I turned out fine. Better than fine, really. I’m magical and awesome. But seriously, I suffered no trauma. I didn’t turn out to be maladjusted, sadistic, masochistic, or wildly promiscuous. Maybe kids aren’t as easily corruptible or as damageable as we’re lead to believe. Or, maybe they weren’t.
It’s hard to say now. Today, kids are forced to grow up fast. Their role models are different. They can no longer get away with wearing t-shirts and sweatpants into their 9-12 years. The pressure to be “cool” and “grown-up” seems to come a lot earlier. It’s a different environment. And, on top of that, or maybe because of that, many parents are way too involved and controlling. There are precious, precocious 9-year olds who come into the library who are forced to read cutesy books about mice for years and years when I know they’re ready for something more. I’d love to recommend something like Bridge to Terabithia to these kids (one of my favorite reads when I was their age). But when the parents learn that Leslie has a crush on Jess (God forbid. Their daughters certainly don’t have crushes on boys!) and that a character dies, recommending it becomes impossible. Nevermind thinking about recommending a book where children are disemboweled.
This is an issue that I find endlessly interesting and absorbing – children’s literature & censorship, not disembowelment – and I’d love to learn more about it in a serious, disciplined way. (Oh, how I long to be able to afford grad school!). I like that as a child himself (basically), Bachmann pushes the age-range boundaries with his novel.
What I Spit Back Out:
1). Nothing, really. There wasn’t anything that I specifically disliked, but there wasn’t anything that I felt really excited about & ga-ga over either. Maybe that wasn’t the book’s fault. Maybe it was Saint Patrick’s fault. Regardless of whomever or whatever’s “fault” it was, though, I don’t think I’ll continue reading the series. The second book, The Whatnot, is due out in September. But you never know. Sometimes I surprise myself. And the book will be out well before Saint Patrick’s Day 2014. There’s always next year’s hangover…
Pooka Rating: 3 out of 5 Nibbles.