Book: The Most Frightening Story Ever Told
Author: Philip Kerr
Age Range: 8-12
The Most Frightening Story Ever Told is a middle grade novel by Philip Kerr about a boy named Billy Shivers. Billy starts spending time in a small-town bookstore called The Haunted House of Books. Taken under the wing of the store's quirky owner, Mr. Rapscallion, Billy learns about the store, goes on a trip, and helps to run a contest. The contest involves five children (selected by lottery) who will listen to "the scariest story ever told." The winner will be the one who doesn't run screaming from the store.
Here are a few thoughts:
- Isn't this a great title? It's not that this book is all that scary, but it's a title to totally hook young readers. My six year old wanted to read it, though it was definitely a bit advanced for her.
- The homages to Roald Dahl are everywhere in The Most Frightening Story Ever Told, from the contest to the group of terrible children who are selected to the inclusion of poems. Mr. Rapscallion bears more than a passing resemblance to Willy Wonka, though he has a bit more backstory (a slightly estranged daughter and even an eventual love interest).
- There are lots of other references to books and movies (bringing the book Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein to mind). These references range from Alfred Hitchcock to Stephen King to Edgar Allen Poe to It's a Wonderful Life (and doubtless many others). Many of these references will be over the heads of 10-year-old readers, making this an excellent choice for a family read-aloud (and a book that adult gatekeepers will enjoy.
- Like both Grabenstein and Dahl, Kerr repeatedly laments (to an exaggerated degree) the fact that people don't read books as much as they used to, due to other distractions. Librarians are particularly likely to enjoy this one.
- The plotting of The Most Frightening Story Ever Told is a bit disjointed, with the inclusion of several stories-within-the-story. It takes quite a while for Kerr to get to the contest itself. It took me a fair bit of time to get through the book, but I did get hooked and finish quickly once the contest kicked off.
- What kept me reading was that from the very first page, I liked Billy's voice. I flagged about a dozen passages in the first quarter of the book and then stopped marking them because I knew that I couldn't quote them all anyway.
- There's a twist at the end that I did see coming from early on, but Kerr did a good job of keeping me from being 100% sure about it throughout the book. Wondering about this also helped keep me hooked on the story.
Here are a couple of quotes, to give you a feel for Billy and Mr. Rapscallion's voices:
"Now, some shop doors have a little bell that rings when you open them. The Haunted House of Books was a shop that had something very different--a hollow, wicked laugh, like something from an old horror movie. Not only that, but when you walked in the doorway, you stepped onto an old subway grating and a current of cold air came gusting up from below the floor. All of this was meant to give someone entering the bookshop a bit of a fright. And Billy was no exception. He yelled out loud and then he chuckled as he saw the funny side of what had happened." (Page 7)
"They're too busy with their nerdy electronic games and their stupid televisions and their annoying cell phones and their geeky computers to think of reading books," said Mr. Rapscallion. "It makes you wonder why people even bother to teach reading in schools." Mr. Rapscallion sighed loudly. "It makes me worry for the future of the human race. Always supposing that I do actually care about something like that." (Page 25)
There's also a chapter in which Mr. Rapscallion tells a scary story. Under the chapter title is: "Note: This chapter should be read out loud to your little brother or your small sister, immediately before bedtime."
So you see, it's right up my alley, with literary references and sarcastic humor. And scary books and more scary books.
The Most Frightening Story Ever Told is not so frightening that it will disturb middle grade readers, but it does have some scary moments. It is a book that will please Dahl fans, book fans, and anyone who loves the trappings of spooky stories (especially haunted houses). The vocabulary is somewhat advanced, and there is a British feel to the story, making this a book that might suit middle schoolers more than elementary school kids. I'm certain that it's a book that adult fans of children's literature will find engaging, as I did. Recommended for home and library purchase!
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: September 6, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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