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Bedside Manner: Entirely Suitable for Younger Audiences

Jaime deBlanc-Knowles revisits a freaky YA book from her youth
Jaime deBlanc-Knowles, 10:00am, Mon. Oct. 29, 2012

During a long, twisty Wikipedia search tracking down the name of a book illustrator, I ran across the cover of The Witches of Worm. I don't know if it was the super-Seventies yellow cover or Alton Raible's creepy pencil-shaded illustration on the front, but something about it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Now, given that Snyder is the author of novels generally aimed at 8 to 13-year-olds, it was weird that I’d remember this as a terrifying book, so I decided to pick it up from Faulk and spend the afternoon rereading it. (I really love reading kids’ books. I can generally finish them in one day, which gives me an inflated sense of accomplishment; plus, it gives me something to talk about with the seventh graders I know.)

Upon rereading, I have to say that this book is still pretty freaky – freakier if you remember that it’s intended to be read by people who are still carrying lunchboxes to school. Here’s why:

1) The main character, eleven-year-old Jessica, adopts a starving, hairless kitten named “Worm,” which she not only kind of despises, but also thinks about killing, because it’s so ugly and she doesn’t want to bother with caring for it (this is not Where the Red Fern Grows, folks.)

2) Jessica begins to hear the cat speaking to her, urging her to take revenge on the people who’ve wronged her, and Worm's suggestions get progressively sinister.

3) When people start catching on to Jessica'a (or is it Worm's?) villainy, Jessica mimics the symptoms of demonic possession, which she’s learned about by compulsively reading books about the Salem witch trials.

If that doesn’t sound like a kid’s book to you, well, I guess you’ve been reading the wrong children’s fiction. The best young adult novels, in my opinion, are the ones that aren’t afraid to embrace the dark side of human nature (see: Neil Gaiman, Roald Dahl, Shirley Jackson, etc). So if Snyder’s story is often uncomfortable to read – and is accompanied by shadowy illustrations that, like the book, seem a little too adult for the intended audience – I feel that’s a vote in its favor. There’s a reason the memory of the book stuck with me for well over twenty years – it’s weird, it’s tragic, and, it captures something real about the terrible choices we often make.

The other book I've been working on is Janet Frame's autobiography, An Angel at My Table. Frame, a New Zealand author who’s one of the country’s seminal writers, was erroneously diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was at university in the 1940s, and she spent the next eight years of her life in and out of mental institutions, undergoing electroshock therapy, and eventually being scheduled for a lobotomy. At the last minute, a doctor recognized her name – she’d recently won an award for her book of short stories – after which, the lobotomy was cancelled, and Frame was released from the asylum.

“I've read that before,” I thought, “and that was some fucked-up shit.”

I’m loving this book for so many reasons. The depiction of that era is fascinating, with its rigid expectations for women and its narrow definition of normality. (Frame was institutionalized for behavior that in the present day would, at most, cause a doctor to prescribe some antidepressants.) But the most intriguing part about the book is Frame’s complicated relationship with her “illness.” She realized pretty early on that her diagnosis was inaccurate, but – at sea in a culture that had no room for a woman who was poor, unattractive, and fiercely intelligent – she decided to mimic the symptoms of schizophrenia, making a bid for the only kind of attention she felt she could get.

Next up, I’m taking a break from troubled female protagonists with the 1935 adventure novel The African Queen. I grew up watching the movie adaptation with my grandpa, so settling down with this battered book is going to feel like visiting an old friend.

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