Holly Black, author, and Tony DiTerlizzi, illustrator,
The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Field Guide
(Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2003)

Holly Black, author, and Tony DiTerlizzi, illustrator,
The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Seeing Stone
(Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2003)

Holly Black, author, and Tony DiTerlizzi, illustrator,
The Spiderwick Chronicles: Lucinda's Secret (Simon and Schuster, 2003)

Holly Black, author, and Tony DiTerlizzi, illustrator,
The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Ironwood Tree
(Simon and Schuster, 2004)

Holly Black, author, and Tony DiTerlizzi, illustrator,
The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Wrath of Mulgarath
(Simon and Schuster, 2004)

"Less than half a year ago, Tony and I received a mysterious note from Jared, Simon and Mallory Grace, three children who have experienced authentic encounters with the beings we call faeries. As hard as it was for us to believe, we came to see that there was no alternative explanation. Now, putting aside personal concerns, we bring their story to you." — Holly Black, from her Web site

I first learned of Holly Black when I was given her first novel, Tithe, for review. I said then that "I certainly look forward to a future filled with new and juicy surprises from the wild and wicked imagination of Holly Black." Fortunately I had not long to wait, and am now delighted to be in possession of the first two volumes of her collaboration with illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi — The Spiderwick Chronicles.

As the above quote from Holly's Web site indicates, Tony and Holly claim that the story of the Spiderwick books was actually told to them by the three Grace children, twins Simon and Jared and their older sister Mallory. Following their parents' divorce, the children and their mother have moved into Great Aunt Lucinda Spiderwick's crumbling old Victorian manse (charmingly described as looking like "a dozen shacks had been piled on top of one another"); Great Aunt Lucinda has been moved into an asylum, where she believes that "little men bring her food." This is the beginning of Book One, The Field Guide.

Hmmmm ... not an auspicious sign, eh? An old house, a crazy aunt — or is she? In short order, discoveries of a squirrel's nest which does not belong to a squirrel, a hidden room, a cryptic rhyming note, and a book entitled Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You lead the children into contact with the wonders and dangers of the realm of Faerie. The book ends abruptly with the discovery of the existence of the Fey.

Book Two, The Seeing Stone, opens a few weeks later and just as swiftly plunges the reader back into the adventures of the Grace children when Simon is kidnapped by a troop of goblins. The goblins, who want Spiderwick's Field Guide for reasons as yet unclear, are invisible to Jared and Mallory until they are able to use the seeing stone (a rock with a natural hole through the center, a traditional method of looking into the Otherworld) to embark on a rescue mission. As in the first book, the Grace children receive the help of Fey creatures; also as in the first book, their helpers are not creatures that the experienced fantasy reader will associate with the Lighter side of Faerie. They are, however, uniquely charming, and as drawn by DiTerlizzi, utterly disarming. Like The Field Guide, The Seeing Stone ends precipitously, though with much more of a cliff-hanger feeling than Book One.

These books are, like the creatures in them, uniquely charming. The storytelling is simple; the language is child-friendly and uncomplicated without ever appearing patronizing to younger readers, and as a result the books are as much a pleasure for adults as for kids. It's quite easy to believe in the authors' assertion that they are merely "passing on" the story for the Graces.

Characterization is good, too ... these are some of the most charming literary children since Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising. Like Cooper's Drew children, these kids have a very real family dynamic. Mallory is very much the big sister; Simon reacts to the divorce by withdrawing into his menagerie of rescued animals, and Jared by acting out. Mother is exasperated, strict, and yet not the enemy that many children's books make of the parent. The Fey are ... fey.

I love the concept of putting these out as separate books: at less than a hundred pages each, these slim volumes, and most likely the future books in the series, could certainly have been combined and released as a single novel. Naturally there are marketability concerns — sold separately, each part means five times as many sales — but I'd like to think that profit was not the primary concern here. Released this way, The Spiderwick Chronicles have the feel of some of the early science fiction and fantasy serialized in magazines such as Weird Tales. Remember the agonizing wait for each new issue? Yet, unlike the almost obscenely lengthy Robert Jordan Wheel of Time books, or Rowling's Harry Potter series, readers will not have to wait for years in between books and thus are much less likely to lose interest! A brilliant decision all around, I think.

However long the wait for the next release — and it won't be too long, as the next is due in the fall of 2003 — these books will be worth it. Each is a pocket sized work of art. The hardcovers came without jackets; the covers themselves, muted blue for the first and deep red for the second, are embossed with titles and credits in raised print. DiTerlizzi's charming illustrations of the Grace children adorn each, and are liberally scattered throughout both books' heavy, creamy pages. Another plus for multiple volumes; I can imagine a publisher wanting to cut down on illustrations in a single book. Being a huge fan of DiTerlizzi's work since I first discovered him through Wizards of the Coast Magic cards, I think that would have been tragic! His pen-and-ink Spiderwick pieces are truly lovely, stylized and yet with an aura of absolute authenticity. These drawings of the Graces really capture the essence of gangly pre-teen kids; his goblins are what goblins surely must be; his griffin is what I've always imagined.

Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi have created a series of real gems with The Spiderwick Chronicles. Buy them for your kids, buy them for your friends' kids, buy them for your friends who are kids. But get copies for yourself or you'll end up sneaking into Junior's room to borrow them back.

The Spiderwick Chronicles: Lucinda's Secret

A co-worker told me a little story a couple of weeks ago. I had previously recommended the first two Spiderwick books to her as reading material for both herself and her nine-year-old neice, Ashley. On the day that Lucinda's Secret became available, Betty brought home a copy and casually left it on the edge of the coffee table. Ashley walked by, did a double-take, shrieked, snatched up the book, hugged it to her chest, and sprinted down the hall to her room, not to be seen again for many hours.

Is Lucinda's Secret worth such fanfare? Well, first let's discuss the problem of "middle books" in series. Lucinda's Secret is the third in the Spiderwick series, which will comprise five books and then the Field Guide itself. The "middle book" in a series, whether second of three, third of five, or third/fourth of seven, is so very often where the author seems to have trouble. This is the point in many series when: the author decides to completely change the rules of magic or morality which they set up for their world in the first part of the story; the author springs an extremely unpleasant twist on the reader (the trusted mentor becomes the villain, for example); or the story grinds to an awkward halt in some form or fashion. Often the middle book makes it clear that the author knew how to begin the series, and knows how the series is going to end, but is floundering about trying to get from A to Z. More than one eagerly awaited "middle book" has dropped with a dull thud into the lap of a dozing and highly disappointed fan. All but the most hardcore of Tolkien fans will admit, for instance, that The Two Towers tends to bog down the center of the Lord of the Rings series.

So, how does Lucinda's Secret hold up? I can gleefully report that Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi have succumbed to none of the potential "middle book" stumbling blocks. The story continues to develop delightfully with a visit to Aunt Lucinda, owner of the house in which the Grace children are staying; the discovery of an intriguing map; and conflict among the children themselves and between Jared Grace and the house boggart Thimbletack. Of course there's more, but I won't be the one to spoil it for you!

Black's writing never falters: her dialog remains real conversation and her narrative flows effortlessly. DiTerlizzi's illustrations are as charming as ever, with his drawings of faery being so perfectly rendered that one cannot escape the notion that he has been drawing from life. My favorite must be his phooka, a being who fills the Cheshire Cat role in this tale and who rivals in beauty any other illustration of that fabulous creature.

So, again, is Lucinda's Secret worth the fanfare? Well, I certainly expect readers to disappear into their rooms for many hours after bringing home this book. I know I did.

The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Ironwood Tree

After much too long a wait for this impatient reader, The Spiderwick Chronicles continue with volume 4, The Ironwood Tree. Tree begins several weeks after the end of Lucinda's Secret; the Grace children are preparing to leave for Mallory's school fencing match, accompanied by their mother. Mrs. Grace still has no idea what's going on with her children and the faeries, much less any inkling that there's a griffin convalescing in the coach house.

The fencing match proves to be much more exciting than necessary, when the children are once again accosted by the Fey. A sinister faerie with the ability to shape shift causes trouble for Jared, putting him in danger of expulsion from school. Worse, Mallory is kidnapped!

Simon and Jared embark on a rescue mission where they meet — ah, you almost had me there, telling you all about it. No, no, no, I am simply not going to spoil it for you. Let's just say, there are more faeries, (including an introduction to the dark force who seems to be behind all of this adventuring), there is more action, and the children's ingenuity and courage are again tested, and leave it at that.

Criticisms? Few of any import. I will say that this is the volume which most nearly touches on the "middle book" syndrome discussed in my earlier review of Lucinda's Secret. It's not that the action breaks down in any way, and Holly Black does a fine job of keeping up the delicate balance between carrying the story forward and giving away too much, thus spoiling the final volume. That said, Tree is going to be the book which, for those of us who tend toward impatience, causes the most frustration. It's good, the story is sound, nothing is lost in the narration — but we're so close to the climactic final volume! So near, and yet so far! It makes one. . . twitchy.

As to the artwork, it continues to be stellar, but I found this the weakest of the four books as far as subject matter for the artist. The Snow White-ish cover piece is exquisite, and the quality of DiTerlizzi's drawing is unlikely to diminish any time in the near (or far) future. However, because there are fewer fantastickal creatures in this volume, and those that there are live in darkness and are slightly more nondescript, DiTerlizzi's imagination is given less room to run, so to speak. I found myself wishing, in Tree far more than in the other books, for the distraction of full color illustrations.

Is The Ironwood Tree my very favorite book of the series so far? No. Did I love it anyway? Without a doubt. The Spiderwick Chronicles are sitting on my shelf next to Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising and Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quartet, and that should be all I need to say.

Except, perhaps, for "HURRY UP WITH VOLUME FIVE!!!!"

The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Wrath of Mulgarath

Finally! The Wrath of Mulgarath is the fifth and final novel (or is it?) in the saga of the Grace children. Let me tantalize you with the chapter headings:

One: The World Is Turned Upside Down
Two: An Old Friend Returns
Three: Jared Finds Out Things He Doesn't Want To Know
Four: Everything Goes Into The Fire
Five: The Find The Meaning Of "Here There Be Dragons"
Six: All Hell Breaks Loose
Epilogue: The Story Of The Grace Children Comes To Its Conclusion

Within these chapters, Aunt Lucinda makes another appearance, as do the elves, the goblins, and the very nasty ogre Mulgarath. Jared, Simon and Mallory are called upon to reach within themselves for new reserves of courage when their mother is kidnapped. They must find Arthur Spiderwick's Book, rescue their mother, battle dragons, and defeat Mulgarath, with a lot of ingenuity and more than a little help from Thimbletack the Brownie and Byron the Griffin.

All of this plays out to a very satisfying conclusion thanks to Holly Black's skillful storytelling and Tony DiTerlizzi's artistic talent. Mulgarath is a page-turner, with continuous action that will keep young readers' attention handily. In fact, having given Spiderwick books to several children recently, I can attest to the anxiety with which fans are awaiting this volume; I doubt my little friend Sidney, who calls the Spiderwick series "the best books I've ever read, ever!" will be even a tiny bit disappointed. I certainly wasn't.

I will say that, having read fantasy for thirty years now, I wasn't as surprised by one of the major plot devices as the kids will be. That didn't in any way hinder my enjoyment of the book. The plotting is solid, the characters behave in ways true to their natures, the heroes are fallible and thus believable, and the villains are suitably diabolical. The illustrations remain superior.

Black and DiTerlizzi are a perfect writing/illustrating combination. Book Six, the actual Field Guide, should be a delight. The Wrath of Mulgarath is a brilliant ending to this story. I'm fairly confident that more books about the Grace children would be welcomed by the growing Spiderwick fandom. There's a Spiderwick film in the works; I'll be first in line to see it. And the final poetic words of this volume seem to leave the way open for more, which can only be a good thing!

[Maria Nutick]

Find Holly Black here.
Visit Tony DiTerlizzi here.