School of Fear, by Gitty Daneshvari

Like Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Gitty Daneshvari's novel School of Fear is a story about extraordinarily odd children visiting an even odder place. School of Fear can't compare to Dahl's classic, but it boasts plenty of goofy charm, a uniformly appealing cast of characters, and tons of snappy one-liners.

Four children have been signed up for a six-week course at Mrs. Wellington's highly exclusive and even more secretive School of Fear: Madeleine, who is terrified of bugs, Theodore, who is scared of death, Garrison, who is petrified at the thought of deep water, and wildly claustrophobic Lulu. The school's brochure promises the children plenty of classmates and an idyllic therapeutic setting, but reality couldn't be more different—Madeleine, Theo, Lulu, and Garrison are the only students, their headmistress is a crazed ex-beauty queen, and the school itself is a tumbledown funhouse of building, complete with a library of rotten foods, polo fields dotted with taxidermied ponies, and a “Fearnasium” where students are forced to face their fears... no matter how bizarre.

School of Fear is aimed at precocious 9 to 12-year olds, and unlike, say, Trenton Stewart or Michael Buckley's books, it doesn't try to attract many older readers. The book stops making much sense as soon as the children arrive at the school, and it gets steadily less coherent as the story progresses. Still, all four protagonists are delightful, Daneshvari's googly-eyed illustrations are a perfect fit for her writing style, and it's tough not to enjoy a plot climax that involves a kidnapped, pajama-clad bulldog. Plus, the book is full of exchanges like this one:
“Theo, they are going to help you enjoy life more, worry less. Doesn't that sound good?” his father asked calmly.
“Worry? Me? I don't worry. I am merely a practical observer of life, commenting on potential harms. That hardly constitutes worrying,” Theo said in a vain attempt to convince his parents that he didn't have a problem.
“Theo,” his parents said pitying in unison.
“You don't take the subway,” his mother started.
“A fire could break out or someone could push me in front of a train; the mayor keeps ignoring my letters about a safety rail. And not to mention all the people touching stuff with their dirty hands. A lot of them don't even use soap in the bathroom—you know the type: Joaquin. He just runs his fingers under water for three seconds and thinks his hands are clean.”
“What about wearing a parachute on planes?” his father asked.
“Preventative measure in case of engine trouble. I truly believe it's the wave of the future.”
“The surgical mask?” Mrs. Bartholomew asked sweetly.
“I only wear that during flu season. As any reputable doctor will tell you, kids are more susceptible than adults. There were ninety-three influenza-related deaths in 2003.”
“Is that what you're afraid of? Dying?”
“Until someone comes back and tells me what happens, I'm not sure I want to do it. And so far Grandma hasn't visited.”
See? With that kind of charm, stories don't need to make sense.
Posted by: Julianka


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