Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go

Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go is the story of Milton and his older sister Marlo who die tragically in a huge marshmallow explosion. Although Milton is a good kid and seems poised to go up to Heaven, the influence of Marlo—who is most definitely not a good kid—drags him down to Heck with her. Heck. Where the bad kids go.

Milton doesn’t really belong in Heck, and he’s not prepared to abandon his sister there, either. They set about trying to escape.

This book should be funny. Perhaps to the right kids it would be. But I was given the book by some really not-uptight friends who tried to read this book to their kids and had to stop because it was so disturbing. And there’s no way I’m reading it with my kids. I have two thoughts on what sets this book apart from other amusing stories of kids in crisis, such as A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Name of This Book Is Secret, both of which I enjoyed and let my kids read.

  1. There is no narrator to break the fourth wall. No one assures us that things turn out ok. No one amuses us with over the top “I can’t tell you this because the safety of the ENTIRE PLANET is at stake! But I guess I’ll tell you anyway” hyperbolic statements. These narrators create a distance between the reader and the characters, which makes it easier to be amused by the horrible things that are happening, plus there’s the reassurance that the characters come out on top. In Heck, they’re already dead—we know they didn’t survive. And the things that happen to them are happening in the moment with no assurance that anything gets better. Their fear and pain has no cushion around it.
  2. The most amusing part of the story is the allusions. If, by chance, your kid is up on Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno, this might be really funny. If recurring jokes about Hooked on Phonics will make your kid giggle, this might be great (my 12 year old daughter had never heard of Hooked on Phonics and therefore would be confused by the recurring but oblique references to it). They also need to know Lizzy Borden, Richard Nixon, Maria Von Trappe, and several names for Satan to fully grasp the humor. Adults may find it cute. I think most kids will be confused.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid


It’s about dead kids. Every kid in Heck has died. Babies and toddlers, kids of all ages. They’re all dead. And this is supposed to be amusing. I was not terribly amused. At least the toddlers are only condemned to a long and boring time out before they’re allowed to go back to the surface to try again. It’s like the author finally reached his own limit on just how much kids could be punished for eternity. (OK, if you’ve read the book, I know—Heck is a way point and at some point in the future, in a world where time has no meaning, the kids will eventually move on to Heaven or Hell or some other adult hereafter. But for all intents and purposes in the novel itself, they’re stuck here pretty much for as long as they can conceive of and probably longer.)

Gross Stuff

Milton, Marlo, and Virgil—a kid they pick up along the way—spend an alarming amount of time in the huge poop-filled sewers under Heck. The flushes are spectacular and disgusting and dealt with in some detail. At one point they see up into the toilet in the teachers’ bathroom. It’s currently being used. Rather graphically. There’s a good bit of vomiting as well.

You still have to go to school in Heck. Marlo does a forensic exam on her teacher who is…well, not alive, because everyone is dead. But certainly the teacher is moving and talking while Marlo cuts her open and sews her back up.


Virgil is a large kid. They come up with many ways to remind us just how fat he is. He gets teased for it repeatedly, by bullies and occasionally by Milton and Marlo.

Milton is a smart kid who likes to read. Of course he has Coke bottle glasses and is a bully magnet.

The mall guards are all fat and stupid, too preoccupied with not spilling their huge drinks to catch the troublemakers, which is part of how Milton and Marlo end up dead.

Apparently, boys and girls have different fears, so all of the classes are taught separately to boys and girls. Lizzy Borden teaches incredibly sexist home ec to the girls, including stuff about catching husbands, etc. While you’re certainly not intended to take life advice from Lizzy Borden, the sexist statements aren’t exactly contradicted, either. Blackbeard teaches phys ed to the boys, talking about how the weak ones remind him of his dead wives—both a threat AND a sexist insult.

Marlo routinely calls her brother “Shortbus.” I’m not sure how many modern kids will recognize the insult, but I sure did and it bothered me.

Skeevy Stuff

There’s a scene in the girls’ locker room where Marlo is teased very cruelly by other girls because she’s flat-chested. Wrapped only in a towel, Marlo is pulled through a mirror into the sewers to meet up with Virgil and Milton. Virgil gets a crush on her, which she finds both annoying and flattering. So then they get washed through the poop-filled sewers, tumbled around, etc. while Marlo, who is about 13 years old, is still wearing nothing but a little towel. As they walk, Virgil shines a flashlight on her butt. When they climb a ladder, he tries to get her to go up first. If you keep in mind that through all of this our underage female protagonist in a children’s book is wearing only a grimy towel, it gets pretty disturbing.

Religion and God

Anything dealing with the afterlife can’t help but deal with God and faith and such. It obviously takes a light view of Heaven and Hell, since that’s what most of the humor revolves around. Marlo says that church camp was even worse than being washed through the awful sewers of the Underworld. A woman knocks over the plastic Jesus on her dashboard when she pounds angrily on it as road rage takes over. There are lots of rules about the afterlife that probably don’t line up with anyone’s religious traditions.

Bullies and Other Nightmares

Damien, Milton’s bully from life, also dies and finds a comfy home in Heck. He beats on Milton until his face looks like spaghetti, which is taken in stride for the most part. The casualness of the severe beating bugged me.

Heck is well and truly frightening. Kids are hurt. They’re scared. Their worst fears come to life. The whole point is to make them miserable. Our main characters aren’t spared this treatment, and without the cushion of the separate narrator, we aren’t spared much of it, either. Some of the demons are more funny than scary once the kids realize how stupid they are, but that’s only some of the demons. And the other kids who populate the background haven’t figured that out. Those screaming toddlers? Truly terrified beyond imagining. The kid shrieking in pain because his hand is trapped in a door? In incredible pain with no idea how things will turn out. Heck is a brutal place.


Milton and Marlo have a complicated sibling relationship. In life, they don’t get along at all. Milton, at heart a rules follower, gets pulled into his sister’s escapades, which usually involve shoplifting. Once dead, though, they start to grow closer, neither one fully wanting to give up on the other. There’s a certain amount of “only I can torture my sibling like that.”

At the end, Marlo sacrifices herself to allow Milton to escape. (Virgil does the same, although he’s not related to them.) Returned to life, Milton grieves for his still-dead sister and then heads off to figure out how to save her. He pointedly does not return home or try to contact his parents because he doesn’t feel like trying to explain any of this. Keep in mind, he’s about 10 years old or so. That has to be one dysfunctional family they have going on there.


I’m not sure who this is a good book for. It’s the first in a series, so I guess someone thinks it’s a good idea, but I wouldn’t recommend it to any kids I know. Although it really looks like a middle grade book to me, based on the cover art and the age of the protagonists, I could see it being amusing for a high schooler who has read Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno. That dark humor might suit an older audience. But the younger readers who will appreciate it are likely few and far between, as are the parents who will be comfortable with discussing this book with their kids.


Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go by Dale E. Basye
Published in 2008 by Yearling
First in a series
Read a paperback borrowed from concerned friends




  1. This is a really helpful review – because I can tell my kids wouldn’t like this book at all. 🙂

    I love your analysis of *why* this book doesn’t work when other books about kids in crisis do. Really interesting!

  2. I would have to say, after reading the first 6 books in this series, that I enjoy the series as a whole, but can’t recommend it to children in the age range listed for it.

    That said, remembering myself as a child of the age range listed for the books I remember not “getting” or understanding a number of things in the books I was supposed to read and did read for school, but didn’t realize until I was and adult and reread those books.

    Kids may miss a number of the background settings and ideas in this series simply because they will only catch bits and pieces of the humor and story that adults would more readily see and will enjoy the humor without getting dragged down by the thoughts occurring to adults reading this series.

    • ayvalentine says:

      My primary concern with this book is that the parts the kids won’t get will be the parts that are actually amusing and clever – so then all you’re left with is gross and scary stuff. I’m sure I’m more sensitive to some of the issues here than most kids will be, but I still think this book squarely misses its apparent target audience. I could see it being really funny to a well read high school or college student, though!

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