I love helping kids find books. I mean, der, that's what unadulterated.us is all about, that's why I work in the public library, etc. etc. But it bears saying. One of the things I love about it is surprising a kid. Say it's a kid who doesn't want a book. A kid who is reflexively embarrassed because his mom is insisting that he talk to the librarian. He just wants me to go away and stop asking him questions.
So I say, "What about a book where a bunch of people get killed?" And the mom's face goes like - "errr..." and the kid is just startled enough that he forgets how mortified he is by the situation.
Now let's talk about The Jumbies!
I reviewed The Jumbies for Booklist, and I QUITE adored it. I said something about how Tracey Baptiste has used structural elements straight out of the Brothers Grimm - the brave girl, the evil stepmother, the magic amulet - in her tale of Caribbean monsters and spirits, and how this is an immensely successful combination.
I might not have gone into detail about why it works so well, but there you go. That's why I still have a blog.
I don't know many children's books that are set in the Caribbean, but I think there should be TONS. This setting is great for a children's book - kids have a lot of freedom because they live in a small town on an island; it's warm, so they're outdoors all the time; and describing the landscape is an automatic upper - if the plot gets too sad, all an author has to do is sit her heroine down on the front step to watch the sunset, and that injects a little beauty into any sorrowful situation.
This disrupts the bleakness of the Grimm plot elements - the brave heroine is not trudging through the snow or shivering at the bottom of a well. And this landscape of supercharged vegetation and colorful animals is fairy-tale-like in its own right. It could even be argued that the contrast between warm, perfumed breezes and VICIOUS CLAWED SHE-BEASTS makes that she-beast even more appalling.
The story revolves around Corinne, who lives with her widowed Papa on the edge of the forest. Corinne is too old to believe in the spirits who walk at night or kidnap people - but on the other hand, she is generally wise enough to stay out of the woods, just in case. And when a beautiful woman wearing a wide-brimmed hat starts coming around her Papa - and is a terrible cook - she must reluctantly admit that the woman may be more - or less - than human.
Trini spirits are marvelous to visualize. There are werewolf-ish monsters and mermaidy sea spirits, and one nasty piece of work who turns into a ball of fire - and all of them are scarier than their Disneyfied European counterparts. My favorite are the douen, sweet babylike creatures that lure children away from their homes with their playful behavior. You can recognize a douen because its FEET ARE ON BACKWARDS. "Messed-up baby" makes my list of Creepiest Things Ever.
What is more, the jumbies in The Jumbies feel very... well, real is I guess the best word. Once they appear in the story, they are seamlessly incorporated. Nobody spends a lot of time scoffing, "LA DIABLESSE?! That's not a real thing!"
Which is great. Because let's face it, when a paranormal critter shows up in Sunnydale, or Sleepy Hollow, or New York City, you have to spend a fair amount of time dealing with tiresome Scully Syndrome explanations or Arbitrary Skepticism.
Not in Trinidad, baby. I mean, sure, probably nobody in Trinidad actually believes in lagahoos or the soucouyant... but Trini superstition involving these creatures is still present in modern life. If you come in your house at night, you must back in the door, so that the duppies (ghosts) that have been following you won't come in. I have more than one Trini friend who to this day won't pick up a coin in the street or put her purse on the floor. Not pointing any fingers, ladies, but I see where you put your bag.
So most of Corinne's village gets right with the program without much fooling around. They acknowledge the peril and begin to take action, bypassing another trope that can be so frustrating - the Cassandra Truth, in which the kids figure out what's really happening but can't get the adults to buy it. The Goosebumps books are essentially built on this situation.
But, listen - this book satisfies on an action level and on a relationship level too. There are characters of diverse cultural backgrounds and a character who doesn't speak. The ending is bittersweet but victorious. You certainly don't have to parse it to death like I just did in order to enjoy it.
Give it to your minors. Tell 'em it's legit scary. You can mention the werewolf with the chains - that ought to hook 'em.