This Appearing House: Courage Looks A Lot Like Kindness
I've been a chronic book lover since before I could read. I have memories of astounding my parents with reading picture books, when I'd actually only memorized the book on tape. (I just dated myself again.) As I grew older, books became my escape in a world filled with isolation, trauma, and rejection. From T.A. Barron's The Ancient One to Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, from Redwall to Goosebumps to Animorphs, I was hooked on everything I could find, and I would spend hours gobbling up the stories in their pages. My grandmother would take me to Waldenbooks every month at the mall, allow me to pick out three or four books, I'd read them in a few days, and then we'd do the same thing the next month.
When I started talking to Ally Malinenko on Twitter about her middle-grade spooky story This Appearing House, I knew it would be the kind of book that middle-school me would have adored. And, truth be told, I have a soft spot for middle-grade/young-adult literature, mostly because it fills me to the brim with a kind of magic that just escapes you after you grow up. So I bought her book and gave it a read. Honestly, this book has a lot to teach anyone who opens its pages, whatever their age. I'm going to talk a lot to parents in this setting, but if you just want to read this for yourself, I heartily recommend you do so.
Jac and The Story That Cannot Be Told
Jacqueline Price-Dupree, or Jac, is our main character. One day, she discovers a large, spooky-looking house at the end of a cul-de-sac that just wasn't there the day before. When a school bully dares her to go inside, she enters -- only to find out that the only way out is through, and that nothing in this house is as it seems. But is any of this real? Or is it just a sign of her past catching up to her?
Oftentimes, in middle-grade or YA books, the protagonist is about to face the trial of their life over the course of the book. For Jac, she's already been there, done that: she's a cancer survivor. At seven years old, she was diagnosed with a tumor, and given a poor prognosis. This story takes place five years later, after she fought the battle no child (or adult) should ever have to face, and came out the other side. But trauma isn't over in a day. Malinenko says that trauma is elastic, and it comes and goes at odd moments, through a barrage of emotions that might come one at a time, or clustered altogether like a hurricane. This story ultimately isn't about the house. It's about Jac. It's about her facing her diagnosis, and coming to peace with the fact that sometimes, there's a happy ending -- even if it leaves wreckage in its wake.
Through the course of the book, Jac is silent about her diagnosis to everyone but her mother. She desperately wishes to leave it in the past and live a normal life. Her mother moved them from California to New Jersey for a fresh start, and she's used it as an opportunity to make herself anew, a new Jacqueline without cancer. She hasn't even told her best friend, Hazel, about it, thinking he'll make their relationship about her diagnosis, or that he'll never look at her the same way, when all she wants is to be normal, to forget. But the house won't let her forget.
The Real Face of Courage
Jac faces every degree of her trauma while going through the rooms of this house. Some of it is experienced in turn by her friend, Hazel, who is there with her. And some of it is only seen, or felt, by Jac. Her memories of the sounds of the MRI machine, the eerie monster with lamp lights for eyes (rather like the lights that stare down at you when you go in for surgery). The antiseptic smell of the hospital. Most of all, her fear of dying, and her anger that she didn't deserve to go through any of that. Her guilt that her disease put her mother through so much pain. As someone who has been through many medical scares, and who's had multiple family members die of cancer, as someone who suffers from an autoimmune disease, Jac had things to teach me. She is strong, and capable. Smart. Independent. She's very afraid to be vulnerable, but ultimately, that vulnerability saves her, when she finally looks her monster in the eye for the first time.
Malinenko says in the Author's Note that she wrote her fears and worries into Jac. After all, she's a cancer survivor herself, who had to undergo years of surgeries and treatments. I have a few friends right now going through cancer treatment (you know who you are, and I love you). So many people talk about it as if being happy and optimistic, pushing down the fear and the guilt and anger is the only way to get through. But there's so much more to the fight than that. Malinenko, through this book and her characterization of Jac, teaches us that our negative emotions aren't there to hurt us, and they aren't something that should be avoided, but faced as a part of our experience. They should be looked in the eye and treated with compassion. That, as Malinenko's father taught her, "bravery is not all battle and bluster but is instead gentle, and looks exactly like kindness."
Hazel, named for one of the characters in Watership Down, is Jac's best friend. And though he seems in constant denial of the horrors before him, he is at Jac's side through the majority of this story, even though he doesn't really understand what's going on, or the greater implications of it. He's a gentle kid, and a fantastic friend. I wanted to give him his own little section, because he's the character you should look to if you ever have a friend or family member going through trauma.
He gives Jac space to be silent, and waits for her to tell him on her own. He asks, of course, and makes it clear that he will never judge her, and only wants to help. But when she asks him to back away, he does. When she does finally tell him, he only offers to be there however she needs, whether that's a distraction, a shoulder to cry on, or anywhere in between. He allows her to be completely herself, without reservation, and without judgment. He is afraid through every moment of this adventure, and yet he never abandons her.
He reminded me a little of my Nicole, to be honest. People, get yourself a friend like Hazel. He's quiet and not terribly bold, but he will stand strong because his friend needs him to, and he'll allow everyone the space to be authentic and true.
The Writing Style
This is a little different than most of the things I read, because it's intended for younger readers. Malinenko's language held a certain magic to it that honestly reminded me of some of my favorite books growing up. The characters were three-dimensional, for the most part, and while it felt very appropriate for the age group (8-12), she pulled no punches when it came to the themes. She had a point to get across to her readers -- that life can go on after the worst happens, that trauma isn't a one-time moment, and that today isn't forever -- and she stuck to it.
Her language is a great balance between immensely accessible for any reader, but it also introduces several vocabulary words that might stretch any young reader's knowledge without making them feel like they're reading something that's overly dense or not fun. Her twelve-year-olds mostly sound like twelve-year-olds and not like short adults in their dialogue and thinking. Jac sounds a bit older, but I would argue that some kids have to grow up when they face death at a young age.
The scary bits aren't too over-the-top. I think if your child likes even mild spooky books, they should get along fine here. (Except maybe the teeth. So many teeth.) Also, the ending takes away the malice of the horrors that she's faced and reframes them into concepts that can help Jac move forward.
The story doesn't drag, and it's well-organized, with a solid pace (that's great for kids and ADHD adults alike). Malinenko's descriptions are excellent, but not too verbose as to make a child lose interest. Her structure is clear, her chapters are delineated in places that make sense. A+ for writing, and honestly, I just felt delighted the entire time.
I'm really glad I picked up this book. Parents, I think the only concern you might feasibly have is if your child is iffy on scary imagery. There are some monsters, and while the book does alleviate the scariness of those creatures, it could be an issue. Otherwise, it's very appropriate for the age group it's written for, and as I've waxed on poetically about at length, the themes are something that anyone, everyone, should know. Ally Malinenko is a talent that deserves to be read more, quite frankly. If you're looking for a Christmas gift and your child even marginally likes to read, pick up this book. It's accessible, exciting, has excellent themes and is just an absolute joy to read. And if you're an adult that wants to pick it up (especially those of you who might be dealing with medical issues)? Do it. Do it shamelessly. Let your inner child live again for a few hours and let Jac teach you a thing or two about surviving, and learning to live again.
This post is dedicated to Ally's dad, just like her book. She says his wisdom informs this book, and so I hope it spreads all around the world, along with his memory.
Purchase This Book
Or find it at a library or order it at a local indie bookstore!
Taken by me, under my Christmas tree that's taking about three days to get decorated. On the upside, the cats love snuggling into that soft, ivory tree skirt.