I've lamented before how few children's classics I actually read during my childhood, and John Bellairs' 1973 novel, The House With a Clock in Its Walls is the kind of thing I'm talking about. This book has been on my radar for a while, and has a reputation for being spooky and great. I moved it up on my list of books to read when I found out that there's a movie adaptation being released this year.
(Warning that the trailer below reveals quite a few plot points.)
So, what's the actual book about and what did I think about it?
It's 1948 and Lewis Barnavelt is ten years old. He is a bit chubby, a bit nerdy, and a bit Catholic. At the very beginning of the book, his parents have died suddenly in a car accident, and he's en route to live with his bachelor Uncle Jonathan in New Zebedee, Michigan.
... his Uncle Jonathan, whom he had never met in his life. Of course, Lewis had heard a few things about Uncle Jonathan, like that he smoked and drank and played poker. These were not such bad things in a Catholic family, but Lewis had two maiden aunts who were Baptists, and they had warned him about Jonathan. He hoped that the warnings would turn out to be unnecessary.What Lewis's aunts haven't warned him about is that Jonathan is a wizard/warlock/magician, living in a huge house with a more or less persistent ticking noise. Jonathan also has a friend, Mrs. Zimmermann, who loves the colour purple with the fire of a thousand suns, and who's an even better magic user than Jonathan.
The book bounces between delightful scenes of domestic warmth between these three characters, Jonathan demonstrating his magic, Lewis' struggles to fit in as a chubby, nerdy kid, and then occasional forays into the plot, which concerns that ticking and the evil wizard Isaac Izard who used to own Jonathan's house.
I couldn't stop thinking of what good care these adults were taking with a small boy who's just lost everything he knows, even though the book doesn't explicitly get into that at all. Jonathan is never cold toward Lewis or resentful of his presence, and both Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann show Lewis a lot of affection and make him feel secure. That made me really happy, because I feel like a book like this would typically be a lot more cruel to Lewis.
Which isn't to say that everything is rosy, either. Lewis pals around with a boy named Tarby for a while. Tarby is a popular boy but gets stuck with Lewis thanks to a broken arm. He's kind of a jerk to Lewis, which Lewis does his best to ignore because he's just so happy to have a friend. It was kind of hard to read at times!
I think if I'd read this book twenty or more years ago, as an actual child, I would've absolutely loved it. I could've related to Lewis's social awkwardness (let's be real, I still sort of do!), and the spooky scary stuff would've been right up my alley. As it is, I'm an adult reader who prefers things to be more thoroughly developed. I'm not sure if anyone is writing these short novels for kids anymore, if they're all huge and epic, but I found the brevity of this refreshing. There's no magic "system" here, it's just magic, which I also appreciated.
Basically, this is a great classic for a young reader, but may not suit more mature tastes.