The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling
By Maryrose Wood
Illustrated by Jon Klassen
Balzer & Bray (an imprint of Harper Collins)
On shelves now
When you’re a parent or a librarian or a teacher or a bookseller who reads a lot of children’s books, you sometimes wish for fun. Children’s books are often by their very nature “fun”. But there’s fun that’s strained and trying to appeal to everyone and then there’s fun that appears to be effortless. You read a book, are transported elsewhere, lose track of time, and never want the story to end. It’s the kind of fun a person encounters in a book like Book One of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place. In The Mysterious Howling you meet a book that’s a little like Jane Eyre, a little like Jane Yolen’s Children of the Wolf, and a little like nothing at all. Pure pleasure for kids, for adults, for everyone. Treat yourself.
If you were to hire a governess from the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, you would find yourself with a young lady of exceptionable talents, knowledge, and intellect. Such is the case when Lord Frederick and Lady Constance hire fifteen-year-old Penelope Lumley to be governess of three children. The catch? Well, they’re not your average nippers, these three. Found on the sprawling acreage of Lord Frederick’s estate, the children appear to have been raised entirely by wolves. Literally. Their new guardians have dubbed them “The Incorrigibles” and are expecting miracles. Now it is up to Miss Lumley to get them civilized and educated or it’s to the orphanage with them and unemployment for her. And there are certainly strange goings on at Ashton Place, that’s for certain. Does someone have it in for the children? Where does Lord Frederick constantly disappear to? Is there something nasty lurking in the attic? Fortunately for everyone Miss Lumley is made of sturdy stuff, and it will take more than a mystery or two to keep her from fulfilling her duties to the fullest.
Since the story takes place in the year when Moby Dick first came out, we can place the period of this piece somewhere around the early to mid-1850s. However, this does nothing to prevent author Maryrose Wood from leaping forward and backwards in time in terms of the narration. It is not uncommon for the story to say something along the lines of “nowadays it would make a fine documentary for broadcast on a nature channel on cable television” and then go right back into the past again. The effect is mildly jarring the first time it happens, but as it goes on the reader gets a feel for Wood’s style. Books of this nature (which is to say, gothic books for kids) these days have a tendency to be compared to the works of Lemony Snicket. I would argue that there is very little in this book that is similar to Mr. Snicket’s works, except perhaps the delightful vocabulary (though Snicket never seriously attempted Latin the way this book does) and the narrator’s tendency to become a confidant of the reader.
What is most remarkable is how well constructed the entire endeavor is. Ms. Wood manages to make the whole story fit together like a little puzzle. A Christmas party must occur on the night of the full moon since that is when guests will best be able to see their way. At the same time, perhaps there are other connections to full moons that we should remember. You never really see where the plot is going until it gets there, so predictable this book is not. Best of all are all the characters. Each one is unique, distinct, and memorable. Even the villains, such as they are, are sympathetic in their headstrong ways. And our heroine, Miss Lumley, is the kind of companion you’d readily follow through book after book. Just as the children come to trust her, so do you, the reader.
I suppose one might question whether or not this is the kind of book that actual honest-to-goodness kids will enjoy, as opposed to gothicly inclined adults. After all, the heroine is fifteen and the story is about her occupation. That said, the real stars of the show are The Incorrigibles themselves. You cannot help but fall instantly in love with them the moment you meet them, and I can see many a kid identifying with them. And while the heroine of this story is a woman, I dare say that there will be boys out there who latch on to the whole “raised by wolves” aspect of the story and find it right up their alley as well. Sell this book to kids correctly and you’ll find them (forgive me, but I managed to keep from saying it for this long) howling for more.
Illustrator Jon Klassen is to be credited for providing the loveliest little illustrations to the story. Where some illustrators might have provided images that would make the book appear older, or more teen, Klassen’s pictures actually give the story a younger feel. There is much that is adorable about this tale, and I think the artist captures that perfectly. While a reader is being charmed by the fact that the kids call Miss Lumley “Lumawoo”, Klassen draws the children as bright, pert, and friendly. They often complement or clarify the action better than the book would alone. Even the author herself once said that the image of the children reenacting Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus” (note that Cassiopeia has lashed herself to a potted fern) might be her own personal favorite image in the book.
Well, there’s nothing for it but to love it, really. If I do have a beef with it, it may have something to do with the fact that you never really learn the answer to any of the mysteries that come up by the end of this story. Readers will be panting to know more (no pun intended) and then find that they have to wait to read the next book in the series before anything is resolved. Fortunately, they’ll scramble to read that next book with very little prodding. For some kids, this will act as a follow-up to Lemony Snicket. For others, an intro to Jane Eyre. And for most, this will be the kind of story you read over and over again, just to taste the language and meet the characters again. Just the loveliest little book. One hopes we’ll be seeing many more of its kind very soon indeed.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Notes on the Binding:
There are two books this year that are particularly lovely beneath their book jackets. Those of you who have a library copy of this title where the cover is taped to the book are out of luck, though. Remove the jacket and you’ll find just the loveliest spine, and an embossed image just beneath the surface. Both this book and The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz are competing for the Loveliest Book Beneath the Jacket Award. They could probably go head-to-head on Nicest Endpapers too.
- The book has its own website, which is nice. While there you can see a video trailer, listen to a podcast, read about the characters, etc.
- Need proof that actual kids like the book? Read this review.
- Download a reading guide here.
- You can listen to a selection from the book here.