I haven’t read Jonathan Auxier’s Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, but I’ve heard good things about it. So I was eager to read The Night Gardener (Amulet Books, 2014).
Two children, Molly and Kip, find themselves alone and on the road, escaping famine and death in Ireland to work for the owners of an English manor in the woods.
All of that sounds fairly realistic and plausible. But Auxier gradually and deftly introduces fantastic elements sure to entice young readers—including a mysterious tree growing next to, and even into the manor and a frightening and shadowy night-time visitor, a top-hat-wearing man who leaves behind chill air and clumps of mud.
Auxier fully meets the first of my criteria for a Newbery-level book.
Here's a quick recap of the criteria. Just ask of the book:
1. Does it keep you turning the pages, wanting to read on?
2. Does the writing make you think or consider things anew?
3. What’s beautiful and moving about it?
4. Are there characters you love?
5. Can you vividly remember it (the overall feeling of it) days, weeks, months, and years later?
Auxier definitely made me want to put aside other things and read to the end of Molly and Kip’s compelling story. The plot is well constructed and the magical elements are very effective.
I’m not putting this work into my Possible Newbery Pile mainly because I didn’t find it truly memorable and the characters didn’t have great depth. A short time after reading the book, I no longer felt any real concern for Molly and Kip. For a story to be truly memorable, those kinds of feelings should remain after the book is done.
One further quibble: Although Auxier very kindly lets readers know right off the bat that the story will be full of spine-tingling moments (the subtitle is “A Scary Story”), he might also have warned us that Night Gardener has more than its fair share of violence, some of which is unnecessarily overwrought and graphic.
Overall, Night Gardener is a mixed bag: a great read for fans of scary stories, but a less-than-truly-memorable tale.