Here’s another review by our newest writer, Michael May—that’s him over on the right!
Upside Down: A Vampire Tale
By Jess Smart Smiley
It’s tough not to be a hypocrite when it comes to raising or teaching kids. “Do as I say, not as I do” may work when they’re very young, but children soon start to question that, and rightfully so. That’s the message I took from Upside Down, though it’s buried like a vampire in its tomb under the adorable drawings and story of a young nosferatu’s battle with an evil witch. There’s a warning to the kids in there too—also about communication—in the witch’s story.
Harold lives—mostly in bat form—with his mom and dad in a piano at a not-so-mad scientist’s house. Unfortunately, he loves candy, and the sugary stuff has softened his fangs to the point that they’re almost unusable for the upcoming Vampire Hunt, an event that Harold’s been looking forward to. There may also be a message in Upside Down about not eating too many sweets, and I can get behind that, too. But as a parent, I was more closely watching Harold’s folks and how they interacted with him.
There’s a series of misunderstandings that keep Harold and his parents separated for most of the story. He’s old enough to go to the dentist alone, so when she tells him that she’s going to have to pull his teeth, Mom and Dad aren’t there to comfort him. Dejected over the idea of losing his fangs, Harold doesn’t go immediately home but hangs out for a while with a couple of normal bats who encourage him that he can still have a great life without being a vampire. By the time he finally gets home, Mom and Dad have left to go look for him and so it goes, with Harold and his parents missing each other for most of the story. It serves to keep the story going, but it’s also a metaphor for their inability to connect and talk to each other.
When they finally reunite at the end—and SPOILERS for the end of Upside Down—Harold’s folks reveal that getting his fangs pulled doesn’t mean the end of his life as a vampire. In fact, they both have false fangs because they can’t resist candy either. Had they told him that from the beginning, Harold would have been spared a lot of suffering, but it’s hard to fault them for encouraging him to cut back on sweets. As a parent, that’s the dilemma I find most interesting in the book.
The other side of that coin is in the story of the witch Vermillion. She’s the antagonist and thoroughly evil, but—like Harold—she’s also dealing with advice from an older family member. In her case, it’s her dead sister Rose, a famous witch who wrote a popular spell book. Unfortunately, Vermillion’s having a hard time putting the book’s lessons into practice, but her trouble is due largely to her lack of attention to the details in the manual. First, she summons a rain storm without remembering the damage that water causes to witches. That it doesn’t also affect her raises the question (in the reader’s mind, if not Vermillion’s) of whether she’s competent enough to even be called a witch. Later, she flubs again by attempting a Two-Witch Spell solo. Rose apparently has presented the information Vermillion needs in a clear way; it’s just that Vermillion’s been careless with it.
When reading Upside Down with kids, there’s a clear teaching opportunity about listening and following instructions. The flip side is that grown-ups need to be honest about the information and advice we give to young people. Good communication is everyone’s responsibility and if either side isn’t doing it right, messages—not to mention relationships—can be turned Upside Down.