The painting of the forest at night featured in last week's Middle Grade Gallery comes from Jacqueline West's debut novel, The Shadows (Volume 1 of The Books of Elsewhere; Dial, 2010). It's one of several paintings--landscapes, portraits, genre scenes of stonemasons and laughing girls-- in the old house on Linden Street that serve as portals into a mysterious Elsewhere.
Enter Olive Dunwoody, the eleven-year-old daughter of two abstracted math professors who have just bought the house and its contents. Olive, lonely and left to her own devices most of the time, senses almost immediately that the house is keeping secrets. With the help of a pair of spectacles, three talking house cats (Horatio, the gigantic orange one, is my favorite) and her own determination to solve the mystery of the paintings and the people in them, she travels into--and out of--Elsewhere. But if she's not careful, she may get trapped in a painting before she can stop the dark forces who created them...and live in them still.
I absolutely adored this book. Starting with Olive, who's an extremely likable heroine--shy and awkward, but also imaginative, curious, and brave (lots of bookish girls will recognize themselves in her); her relationships with her parents, who are present if not exactly paying attention; and with Morton, a small annoying boy who's been trapped in a painting for a long time himself. Plus the cats!
Then there's the house. Who can resist an old stone Victorian, full of antique furniture and strange knicknacks? Not I. It's got an attic heaped with things, too; not to mention an overgrown garden that I hope Olive explores more thoroughly in one of the later books in the series.
Most of all, though, I love the mystery, and the mechanics, of The Shadows. The paintings aren't just portals between the house and Elsewhere, they are Elsewhere. The people there are mostly paintings, too--the scenes where Olive realizes this about Morton, and then later when he realizes it about himself, are especially memorable. [For what this might look like, check out Alexa Meade's acrylics on flesh.]
A note about the book itself: If I were to write a middle grade fantasy novel, I would want it to be as beautifully made (let alone written) as this one. Poly Bernatene's black-and-white illustrations are fantastic, a perfect fit for the creepy/comic tone of the text; the endpapers, printed with empty frames, are the exact same shade of blue as the sky on the jacket; there's even a debossed pair of spectacles on the hardcover underneath. It's all very satisfying.
The Shadows has been compared to Coraline, but really, I liked it even better. Highly recommended!
[Review copy received from publisher at ALA; thank you so much!]