And by “new,” of course, I mean “old Newbery that I hadn’t read until now,” because that’s the way THAT works. I can only judge what I’ve read, right? Up until yesterday, if you were to ask me what the creepiest Newbery I’d ever read was, I probably would have said The Graveyard Book. (The Planet of Junior Brown was creepy, yes, but in a bizarre, surreal, I-can’t-see-this-as-a-coherent-plot kind of way.) It was a good book, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t exactly sweetness and light. I was honestly kind of surprised that it won, because the story and the ending seemed a bit of a stretch for an award given to children’s literature. There have certainly been other ghost stories that have won, and other winners that look creepy as all get out (Doll Bones, anyone?), but I thought The Graveyard Book was on the extreme end of things.
And then I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan–at which point The Graveyard Book started to look kind of cozy. After all, the kid in The Graveyard Book is being raised by, well, beings who love him, right? He’s watched over and cared about? His childhood looks downright warm and fuzzy compared to Tenar’s. She is forcibly removed from her family at 5 to be the one Priestess at the Tombs; as part of the becoming, she loses her given name and becomes “Arha,” which translates to the Eaten One. (Because of course, she is given in service to the ‘Nameless Ones’ and therefore ‘eaten,’ so there is nothing left of the person born Tenar.) She serves those Nameless Ones, performing rites and rituals (including pouring out goats’ blood at the tombstones), for a decade. Her ‘domain’ is the Labyrinth underneath the tombs, and it is there she meets Ged, the wizard from Le Guin’s previous Earthsea novel. How that meeting affects both of their lives is fascinating, it’s true; this book gripped me almost from the get-go, and kept me going the whole way through. It’s just that it has a dark feeling to it, a haunting sense of ancient evil that seems, somehow, less fantastic (as in, related to fantasy) and more just foreign–only not as completely foreign as you’d like it to be.
Hmmm. I’m not sure that made as much sense as I wanted it to. Let’s just say that Le Guin is just as good at creating a creepy mood as Daphne du Maurier was (have you read Rebecca?). The Tombs of Atuan may be a Newbery, but it’s certainly not for the very young or the very impressionable. In a way, I suppose that’s praise; all the same, I can only recommend this one if you like that sort of thing. I don’t ever see myself rereading it.