my children’s-book column for Acculturated:
I don’t know why anyone would ever want to rule a fantasy kingdom, or become an evil wizard, when you have to deal with countless irksome children giving you backchat. It seems that almost every kids’ fantasy written nowadays has a “spunky” hero or heroine: kids who speak their mind or talk back to their elders, even when sass is clearly not the wisest move. These kids’ mentors constantly praise them for their bravery, but it’s hard to see why, since their whole personalities seem geared toward boldness to the point of stupidity or brattiness.
Not so the heroes of John C. Bellairs’s eerie, spooky, often grimly funny fantasy tales. The kids who battle sorcerers and curses in his books are typically shy or easily intimidated, burdened with anxiety and guilt. These kids can even come across as sad-sacks, which would be less fun to read if the books didn’t push them out of their shells and help them find friendship (usually with adults rather than other children) and courage.