Adam-Troy Castro rocked our world with his Andrea Cort novels and stories (and later today, we're republishing a story of his that just appeared in Lightspeed Magazine.) So we were thrilled to see that he's written a children's book, Gustav Gloom and the People Taker. It's the story of a weird little boy living in a house full of shadows — and it's the perfect gift for the weird boy or girl in your life.
Gustav Gloom sort of reminds me of a Tim Burton movie, except without any of the self-conscious campiness or retro-ness. The titular main character is that one weird kid who can't fit in, in the midst of shiny suburban perfection. All the other houses in Sunnyside Terrace are painted in matching colors, as approved by the neighborhood board, but Gustav lives in a big black mansion full of shadows, with a tree that looks like a "skeletal hand" out front. Soon, a new family moves in next door, the Whats, and little Fernie What befriends the strange little Gustav.
We soon find out that Gustav's house is where all the shadows live — including shadows of people who aren't around any more. And the shadows of extinct dinosaurs. And the shadows of things that never existed — there's the Gallery of Awkward Statues, for the shadows of statues that were never created, like a version of the Statue of Liberty where she's scratching her butt. There's also the Too Much Sitting Room, full of chairs that basically eat people. But the biggest danger in the house is the People Taker, a man who's come up out of some kind of shadow realm and is feeding people to a bottomless pit with the help of a monster called the Beast.
The whole thing is immensely silly, and quite gratifying. Castro's always been great at funny, loopy stories — I recommend tracking down his superhero pastiche "Crisis on Ward H" — but he hits on a really great, chatty style here. The increasingly madcap adventures, where Gustav and Fernie are getting chased around by the People Taker through weirder and weirder rooms, are dotted with a bunch of witty observations and nice turns of phrase. Like this, when Fernie's cat's shadow has come to life and the cat is chasing its own shadow towards Gustav's house:
The cat that cast no shadow and the shadow that cast no cat both slipped in between the bars of the fence that surrounded the Gloom house and disappeared into the shifting patches of deeper darkness.
The novel's main conceit, that shadows can come to life and have a mind of their own, is mostly played for fun rather than spookiness. Although there's plenty of both. The notion of a shadow world, where the shadows of things that never were as well as everything that ever was, is so absurd that Castro doesn't have to push it very far to come up with a lot of loony details. Oh, and the full-page illustrations by Kristen Margiotta add a lot as well.
The other theme of the novel, about fear and safety, is also both whimsical and well-modulated. Fernie's father is a "professional worrier" — a safety expert who puts railings and warning signs around everything, and constantly looks for the most outlandish dangers that could arise in any possible situation. Fernie's absent mother, meanwhile, is a professional adventurer who's always off climbing Mount Everest while blindfolded. Fernie and her sister Pearlie mostly take after their mother rather than their father, but there's a running debate about whether it's better to worry about every last possible danger, or just live your life and hope for the best.
All in all, this is a fun adventure novel that is probably perfect for that kid you know, who reads too many books and doesn't play sports enough. It's optimistic about people, especially our ability to do the right thing, and the scariest parts are also the funniest parts. Most of all, the friendship that develops between Gustav and Fernie is really nice, and doesn't ever put either of them in the position of sidekick or tag-along. Definitely worth picking up.