‘Spiderwick’ wraps the scary in a ‘cozy’ package

by Jacqueline Blais
USA Today | November 9, 2004

In the world of kid-lit, a certain kind of scary book is in demand: Gothic Lite.

The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black — “more cozy than chilling” — fills the bill, says Roger Sutton, editor in chief of The Horn Book Magazine, which covers children’s books.

In the imagined Spiderwick world, twins Jared and Simon, 9, and sister Mallory, 13, move into a falling-down Victorian house with their divorced mom, a nice librarian who does not notice that the house and yard are teeming with faeries, ogres, brownies, griffins, trolls and goblins. The Grace kids, of course, do.

These chapter books are aimed at the pre-Harry Potter set, ages 7 and up. Writer Black describes the stories as “unnerving and frightening, not little horror stories . . . more adventure than anything else.” Adds illustrator DiTerlizzi, who helped develop the story line: “But they have to have danger, just like any fairy tale. Kids don’t want it candy-coated. They want a little grit.”

The five Spiderwick books are a little more than 100 pages each, invitingly illustrated and small enough to hold easily. But, as DiTerlizzi told one fan: “Dude, when you’re done, you’ve read a 500- to 600-page book.” That fan would be Alexander Carr, 10, of Alexandria, Va., who once was what is called euphemistically a reluctant reader. Reading was “evil,” he says, his hand chopping downward. He started the first in the series, The Field Guide, one night, woke up in the morning, found the book at his side and started reading more. “These books are so fun, they’re easy, they’re what I like,” he says. The books are “adventurous, not scary.” Alexander concedes that the books might be a “little scary, but I know (the Grace kids) are going to be OK, because then they wouldn’t have published the books.”

The first two, The Field Guide and The Seeing Stone, were published in May 2003. Lucinda’s Secret came out in October 2003, and The Ironwood Tree was published in April. The fifth and concluding The Wrath of Mulgarath arrived in September. Mulgarath did best on the USA TODAY Best-Selling Books list, making the top 50 for three weeks this fall. The books are now in 30 languages, and about 2.5 million are in print, says Tracy van Straaten of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing.

Black, 32, and DiTerlizzi, 35, say that in the real world, their styles mesh well. They knew from the start that they were kindred spirits. Black interviewed DiTerlizzi for the now-defunct d8 magazine about his work on Dungeons & Dragons’ Planescape. They discovered they owned and loved the same book growing up: Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee, a favorite about otherworldly creatures.They introduced their spouses (DiTerlizzi’s wife, Angela DeFrancis, and Black’s husband, Theo) to each other so everyone could bond. As DiTerlizzi described the meeting of the couples: “Here were another set of nerds, as geeky as we were.” Black and DiTerlizzi work so well together that they moved to the same town, Amherst, Mass., and when they talk, they finish each other’s sentences. DiTerlizzi plotted out the book like a chess game, and Black worried about character development, especially Jared, who always is in trouble. A snippet from an interview demonstrates how they have developed a kind of shorthand with each other. DiTerlizzi: “I kept asking, ‘Where’s the innermost cave?’ ” Black: “Well, Jared’s very angry right now.” DiTerlizzi dedicates the series to Arthur Rackham, an early 20th century illustrator famed for his work on such classics as Peter Pan in Kensington
Gardens. Black, who says she grew up in a household where ghosts were everyday
companions, dedicates her work to her grandmother. Black also is the author of the teen fantasy Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale.

Black and DiTerlizzi say this is the end of the Grace children’s story: They don’t want to put Jared, Simon and Mallory through any more torture. But it is not the end of tales from Spiderwick. Coming next summer: The Spiderwick Chronicles: Notebook for Fantastical Observations, an illustrated journal for children to record their own spritely creatures — “strange occurrences in their yard, playground, so forth,” DiTerlizzi says. And next fall: Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, an illustrated replica of the field guide that the Grace kids discover in their haunted home.

Never Abandon Imagination Tony DiTerlizzi: Never abandon imagination.

Imagination is a world of possibility that exists within each of us. It is what makes us uniquely human. It is our creative fingerprint that touches and influences the world around us. Imagination is essential to art and science; to innovation and prosperity. It gives us hope, calls us to action and leads to change.

Whether it’s fairies, dragons, robots or aliens, all of my children’s book characters are siblings born of my imagination – an imagination strengthened through years of encouragement from family, teachers and friends. While so many others abandoned it during their transition from childhood to adulthood, I fiercely held onto mine, hoping for a day when I could share it to inspire the next generation of dreamers. Innovators. World changers.

Imagination empowers us to envision and create a reality of what could be. We must hold it dear, foster it and never abandon it.