I am not a scary book reader. I'm not fond of horror - I just don't want to imagine those scenes. I have a big imagination, so if I read something scary, I tend to remember it and think about it again at the most inopportune moments. Like when it's dark, late at night, and I hear a strange noise (gulp!). That's part of why this book is so refreshing - it is creepy and scary, but it's nothing middle schoolers can't handle. In fact, some of the creepiness comes from how ordinary Juniper's life seems from the outside.
Juniper Berry is 11 years old, and she has famous parents. They are both famous actors, and when she was young, they were able to leave their work behind when they came home. The Berrys had Juniper as the focus of their lives. Lately, though, her parents are distracted, acting like she's not even in the room. The nicest thing they say to her is "Go away." The Berrys worry about not being famous enough, they panic over the roles being offered to others, they fret over their performances and their lines. Juniper knows something is not right. But their eyes tell her the truth - they are flat, empty, and emotionless.
Since Juniper's parents became so famous, Juniper has become more and more isolated. She was already homeschooled, locked behind the gates of the home where fans flock all day. So when she sees a boy wandering the woods behind their house, she runs to meet him. Giles lives nearby, and he is worried about his parents as well. They are famous in the music world, and suddenly things are not right with his family either. The biggest giveaway is their eyes. Giles has followed them in the dead of night to a specific tree on the Berrys' property. And Juniper has noticed something about that particular tree, too - a raven who perches there constantly - the only one in the area.
Kozlowsky does an amazing job of ratcheting up the tension and suspense without making the book too frightening. There are a couple of really yucky scenes, but most of the terror in this book comes from fear, not gore. Kozlowsky has created a combination of adrenaline ride and thoughtful commentary on today's society. I believe the ideas behind the book will stick in readers' heads much longer than the fear.
This is the author's first novel, and one of his gifts is description. And the descriptions he creates are unusual, yet give you an immediate picture. He describes Mrs. Berry this way "Her torso was also long and seemed to bend like warm rubber..." (p. 11). And Juniper longs to touch Giles' wet hair, and when she does, it feels like "thick strands of yarn, or, Juniper preferred, waterlogged caterpillars." (p. 29). Both descriptions are quirky but strong - you can see Mrs. Berry bending, you can feel Giles' hair as Juniper does. These descriptions really heighten the tone of this novel, making it feel creepier and creepier.
You may have already guessed that Juniper and Giles' parents are in trouble, and maybe even that it has something to do with the fact that they are all famous. I don't want to give away too much and spoil your experience of this novel, but I'll say that Kozlowsky does an excellent job of looking at the price of fame in a way that young readers will understand. Juniper's parents are seen constantly evaluating their fame. "'Juniper, dear, you go to all those websites, those gossip pages, posting boards. Have they been mentioning me?'" (p.11) Both Juniper's father and mother worry their best days are behind them. They feel old, not attractive, not successful, even though people are constantly hounding them (even Juniper's tutor scours the house for the latest Berry gossip). But it is never enough for them.
One of the things I find most interesting about this book is the parent-child dynamic. In most teen books and many books for middle schoolers, the parents are absent in order to allow the younger characters to act without parental influence. But in this book, Juniper's parents are present, physically there in front of her. And yet she is still absolutely alone, horribly neglected. Her biggest desire is to have her parents back with her, to continue to make that connection with them. Where many books show characters who aren't connected to their parents (separating from families as part of the coming of age process), Juniper and Giles both desperately need their parents. Juniper particularly is a typical 11 year old - sometimes brave and strong enough to act decisively on her own, more often still longing for her parents' touch. It is a sad consequence of her parents' actions.
I hope readers will take the message her to heart - all of the parents have enormous aspirations, and gave up things to gain shortcuts to fame and stardom. While they do work at their crafts, it comes much more easily now. I think Kozlowsky does a great job of couching this message in an adventure. Students will read on to see what happens to Juniper and Giles, but I hope they will take away the idea that things that come so easily might not be reality. I think that idea gives the terror substance - what would the reader do to achieve their own dreams? Read it, think about it, and let me know. I hope this story of terror and temptation doesn't come true for you.
Juniper Berry. M.P. Kozlowsky. Walden Pond Press: HarperCollins, 2011.
borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library