The Shadows: The Books of Elsewhere

The Shadows-The Books of ElsewhereIt’s been awhile since I’ve read a book that made me question the wisdom of reading just before I fell asleep! The Shadows: The Books of Elsewhere, though quite middle grade appropriate, plays off of several of my personal fears and is the creepiest kids’ book I’ve read since I was a kid myself. The drawings, though cartoonish, are dark and often from odd perspectives; they suit the book well, because it’s often clever and funny, while still being tense and, well, “creepy” is just the best word to describe it. I’m just going to accept that I’ll be using that word a lot in this review.

Olive is our 11 year old hero. Unlike many protagonists, she’s not precocious. She’s a pretty normal kid who gets ok grades, is mediocre at sports, and tends to be clumsy. She’s used to mildly disappointing people and occasionally really getting into trouble. I think most readers will easily identify with her.

The only child of distracted mathematicians, Olive has moved around a lot in her young life. She’s just recently moved into an old, creepy house. She has no friends, not in her new town and none that she left behind from any of her old towns. The old house, however, seems kind of alive—and there’s definitely something creepy about those paintings throughout the house. An odd pair of spectacles she found in a drawer allows her to travel into the paintings, where she meets a variety of painted people including Morton, a boy just a little younger than she is. She also meets a trio of cats who guard the house. They can talk, giving her warnings and advice—but can she trust them?

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


This book did a remarkable job of playing off of my own fears—I grew up in an old house, too, and I was terrified of the stone basement with corners I could never quite see into. Throughout the novel, there’s a pervasive sense of never being truly alone, of being watched, of not quite being welcome. Those with fears of the dark, of being alone, of drowning, of spiders, of the dead not exactly resting peacefully may find parts of this book pretty scary.


The main bad guy, Aldus McMartin, is an evil witch—he comes from a long line of witches, although most weren’t as awful as he is. Magic is used to control and debilitate people—they can be forced to do things against their will. He’s imprisoned people in paintings, essentially giving them immortality whether they want it or not. His plan to return after his death involves a portrait of himself.

The final battle is primarily emotional rather than physical. He plays on Olive’s fears, trying to get her to give up and fall asleep. He tries to convince her that no one would miss her if she were gone—even her parents would get over it, maybe have another kid, one who might live up to their expectations. He tells her that none of her previous classmates even remember that quiet kid who was there that one year.

Magic is countered by light—Olive defeats Aldus with a camp lantern, using mirrors to reflect and magnify the light. She sings songs about light to keep the magic at bay. Candles, flashlights, and electric lights all play a role in standing up against the magic.

Dark Sense of Humor

Part of why I was able to continue on with the book is the sense of humor. There’s clever phrasing, amusing comparisons and descriptions, and funny situations that keep it from being too dark. However, especially at the very beginning, some of the humor may be too dark for some kids.

The book opens with a very irreverent discussion about the death of the previous owner of the house. She died at an advanced age, having lived alone with her cats and ignoring her neighbors for many years. In fact, it takes them some time to realize she’s dead. There’s some speculation about whether the cats chewed on her face and there’s mention of a cousin who died due to a severe allergic reaction to turtle and arsenic soup. This is all in the first 2 pages, and the rest of the book isn’t quite so macabre.


Olive’s parents are very much in love with each other. They don’t quite know what to do with their non-mathematically-inclined daughter, however, so Olive is a bit of an outsider in her own family. Nevertheless, they do love her, and they’re proud of her imagination and creativity. When Olive mentions some of her fears to her mother, she doesn’t laugh at her or call her childish. She takes them seriously, although she also encourages her not to let those fears hold her back—at some point, you still need to go down to the basement and change the laundry.

Olive’s parents fit a trend I’ve noticed of isolating children by making the parents passionate and distracted academics, rather than killing them off. While I bristle a bit at the stereotype of academics unconnected from the world around them, I’d guess that a lot of kids can identify with parents who are present but often not quite engaged with them. As a parent who works from home, I’m certain my own children can identify with that.

The McMartin family is pretty twisted. Aldus hates his non-magical and moral son. He manipulates his granddaughter into following in his footsteps, capturing her essence in a painting when she’s young and loyal to him. He murders her parents (yeah, that means he killed his own son), which finally turns her against him. She tries to make up for the sins of her grandfather and she never has children of her own, hoping to end her family line. However, they live on in the portraits.

Kids on Their Own

Olive is very much left to her own devices—although one or both of her parents is often home, they’re usually working and are caught up in what’s on the computer screen more than what’s going on around them. Olive is left home alone whenever both of her parents need to be on campus. They have very little idea of what’s going on with their daughter, and she never thinks about bringing them into it—it’s not even something she considers.

For the big climactic scene, the parents absolutely need to be out of the picture. They go on an overnight conference, leaving their 11 year old daughter alone overnight in a new town where they don’t really know the neighbors. They do make sure the lady next door will keep an eye on her, but Olive doesn’t know her well and doesn’t feel comfortable with her. Let’s just say this isn’t a choice I’d make as a parent.

Morton and the cats want to help Olive fight the final battle, but she’s shut off from them. She has to face this alone. Repeatedly, Olive has to rely on herself. This isn’t viewed as a negative, really. She’s an independent kid, capable of handling herself, even if she sometimes feels inadequate. Her defense mechanism as the constant new kid was to blend in, losing herself in her surroundings and hoping she wouldn’t draw attention to herself. In the end, she has to stand up and face her fears head on.

Environmentally Aware Kids

How do you make a modern kid head back into the creepy basement? You have her remember that she forgot to turn off the lights when she got scared and ran out. With the environment in such bad shape, Olive can’t bring herself to leave the lights on all day, so she heads back down to turn them off (things turn out fine). When she spends the night alone in the house, she leaves all the lights on, consciously deciding that she needs to make this choice, even if it’s wasting electricity.

Boys Vs. Girls

When Olive meets Morton, he clearly tells her that he’s superior because he’s a boy. (She pulls rank, telling him that he has to listen to her because she’s older.) This is a hint that Morton isn’t a modern kid, but the theme of girls being inferior lasts for a while. Eventually they learn to be friends with each other, though.


I’ve never been one for scary books and movies, but The Shadows is cleverly and delightfully creepy and therefore it was worth overcoming my usual aversion to scary stuff. It’s probably appropriate for ages 10 and up, although kids who are easily frightened may have issues with this book. It may be a good one to read with your kids, either aloud or in close enough succession that you can talk about it with them. It may not be a great bedtime read!

The Shadows: The Books of Elsewhere by Jacqueline West
Published in 2010 by Scholastic, Inc.
First in The Books of Elsewhere series
Read my daughter’s copy


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