Sunday, July 8, 2018

Revisiting Childhood Favorites: Author John Bellairs

A recent challenge on Facebook had me posting my favorite reads, and that got me thinking about John Bellairs. I didn't have very many books as a child, but I remember very clearly having the first two Lewis Barnavelt stories in paperback. I have no idea where they are now; I'm hoping in a box somewhere in my basement. I was lucky enough to find Barnes and Noble had put together the first three in one hardcover volume for the incredible price of $9.95 years ago and snagged it, along with another volume of his Johnny Dixon mysteries. They've sat on my bookshelf for years. Friday night, I decided I needed to re-read John Bellairs. I managed to read the first two of the three this weekend. 

There is a movie coming out in September for TheHouse with a Clock in its Walls starring Jack Black as Uncle Jonathan, and Cate Blanchett as Mrs.           Zimmerman. I watched the trailer, and it's of course 
vastly different than the book--a whole lot more magic fantastical stuff.  I think kids will love it! I will certainly see it in the theater. 

I read the first two novels of the Lewis Barnavelt series. I believe there are at least 10 of them; some finished after John Bellairs died in his early fifties in 1991. I'm still crushed he didn't have more time to write more novels for young kids. They are wonderful. 

So a quick recap: Lewis Barnavelt has lost his parents in a car accident, and he's sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan in New Zebedee, Michigan.  Set in 1948, life was a bit simpler, of course, but no less full of magic, both good and bad. Uncle Johnathan is a magician of sorts, and a wizard, who lives in a mansion on a hill. His next door neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman, is a witch, who makes the best chocolate chip cookies and hot cocoa, and waffles for breakfast.  Lewis realizes his first night at Uncle Jonathan's home that he's in a wonderful place, where stained glass windows change scenes, and the mirror near the front door shows scenes from history-or sometimes just shows your reflection. He's got a fireplace in his room, and plays poker with his Uncle and Mrs. Zimmerman on a regular basis. While all seems well, Lewis faces bullying at school because of his size and his inability to play any kind of sport. He cries easily, and dreads lunchtime at school. I really felt for Lewis; seems bullying has been around for generations. He's called fatty, fatso, lardo; picked last for the baseball games, then told to go home because they don't want him to play. Thankfully, he's got a wonderful place to go home to-but a home with a strange clock ticking in the walls. 

The mansion was the home of the evil Isaac Izard and his wife, both into dark magic. Now both dead and resting in a mausoleum in the local cemetery, they started something in the house that could mean doomsday for everyone if Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman don't figure it out. Lewis' desire to keep a friendship with a popular boy has him casting a spell on Halloween night to raise the dead (he has no idea what he's doing, but is desperate to impress his friend)--and boy howdy, does he succeed. Who does he raise, and what does it mean for the house, the ticking clock, and the town of New Zebedee? 

In the second novel, The Figure in the Shadows, Lewis is still being bullied at school, and has just lost his beloved Sherlock Holmes hat to the biggest bully in class. He's made a new friend: Rose Rita, a tomboy who is tough and prefers jeans to skirts. Hoping to cheer Lewis up, Uncle Jonathan opens up Grandpa Barnavelt's old trunk, and inside Lewis finds an old amulet his Grandpa won on a bet the night before a big Civil War battle. Mrs. Zimmerman says there's no magic to it, but Lewis thinks otherwise. He wears it on a chain around his neck, and suddenly has all sorts of vivid dreams about battles, fighting, and revenge. And then there's the mysterious postcard that arrives at midnight, with one word: Venio. "I come." Gulp. Lewis is too afraid to confess to Uncle Jonathan he's been messing with magic again, so what is he going to do? 

The first novel was illustrated by Edward Gorey, and I have always had a soft spot for his illustrations. They are perfect for John Bellairs novels. The second novel is illustrated by Mercer Mayer, and while it is charming, it doesn't hold a candle to Edward Gorey. I believe most of Bellairs' early novels were graced with Edward Gorey illustrations, so I'm not sure why Mercer Mayer illustrated the second Lewis Barnavelt novel. Maybe a later edition?

There is something completely engaging about John Bellairs' writing, and I was just as thrilled to read them today as I was decades ago. I think they stand the test of time, certainly. They are a perfect example of good vs. evil, the many ways we create families, and the effect bullying can have on us as children. I'm craving some chocolate chip cookies, thanks to Mrs. Zimmerman! 

I'd recommend these books to any young reader who likes magic, ghosts, the unknown, and suspense. I'm hoping more will return to print with the release of the movie in September. As for now, it looks like most are available as ebooks. 

I'll keep reading more as I find them, and smile the whole time. 

Rating for both novels: 5/6 for delightful writing, lovable characters, and oooh, the evil-doers! Just the kind of novels I would have loved to write myself. 

Used copies, paperbacks, and ebooks are available. Get to it! 

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