by Bruce Coville
Young Readers (MG 8-12)
Always October. The name alone reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s October Country or Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October.
Lily Carker, (whose grandfather Abraham (or “Gnarly”) runs the cemetery,) and Jacob Doolitle, (who comes from a wealthy family, but also from a long line of absentee fathers,) become unlikely friends when they discover a mutual interest in scary stories. They actually meet to read them in a tomb in the cemetery. Since Jake’s dad left, he’s developed a little bit of OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and he has special rituals such as tapping certain places on the wall on the way up the stairs or pressing his thumb to each of his fingers repeatedly. Lily knows that sometimes just being there and not saying a thing is the best thing you can do for a friend.
Jake’s grandfather was Arthur Doolittle, author of a series of books about a monster-world called Always October. His first book was called A World Made of Midnight. I can’t imagine a cooler name for a book. He also speaks about a concept called Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, a concept that works here on a lot of levels.
Now, Lily’s grandpa Gnarly hates the Doolittle family, but he goes on a journey that helps him come to terms with the reason why…
The adventure begins when Mrs. Doolittle and Jacob take in a little bundle left on their doorstep whom they decide to call “Little Dumpling.” Jacob’s mom just waits for the mother to come back; she doesn’t call the police. Why? We discover L.D.’s full story later on, but it turns out he’s from the very land of magic and monsters Jake’s grandfather called Always October. It’s real. And L.D.? He isn’t really a human baby… at least not in the light of the full moon.
So someone didn’t want Little Dumpling around, but it wasn’t his mother. It’s a horrible monster named Mazrak that somehow also had a hand in the disappearance of Jacob’s father. Mazrak is the leader of a group of separatists called The Unravelers, who want Always October to be torn away from the human world, (“Humana,”) to stand on its own. But the Council of Poets has already realized that the act of severing the two worlds would destroy them both.
“What Darkness is that?” Jacob asked, his own voice hushed.
“Fear of the unknown. The terror of what lurks outside the cave when you are huddled in for the night; the wondering about death and what comes after; the knot in the gut that comes from dread of the outsider, of anyone who is different… These things will rise and drown you.”
The High Poet, Keegel Farzym, (reminiscent of Sulley from Pixar’s Monsters, Inc.,) brings Jacob, Lily, and Gnarly (by accident) into his own world rather than let Little Dumpling fall into Mazrak’s hands. (On the way, we discover he can speak to wolves. How cool is that?)
I loved the puzzle-solving and cryptography that led to the discovery of Jacob’s father’s study in the tower of his house, and wonder if we may see it again.
This is Always October. Here, twilight lasts for half a day, the moon is almost always full, and the sun is rarely seen. It is the home of the folk you call monsters, the place that haunts your dreams at night, the realm that whispers to you when you remember something frightening yet wonderful.
The group soon meets a twin named Sploot Fah, who accompanies them as their guide through the monster-world. Always October isn’t always a nice place. When Jacob runs head first into the lair of a giant spider, Keegel Farzim can’t help him because there are rules to the magic in this world; each monster holds sway over their own lair. Though Jacob manages to escape, the spider Octavia tells him that one of his party will die before they make it home.
Answer me this, Jacob: Did she say it was a curse or a prophecy?
They soon meet with the Council of Poets and are joined by Mrs. McSweeney and her feline companion, Luna, who live next door to Jacob in the human world. The Council explains that the separatists want the baby to power their World Slicer, but while L.D. is in Humana the worlds cannot be rent. So in order to prevent Mazrak from returning Little Dumpling to Always October once she is safely hidden away again in Humana, there is a magic bracelet that will prevent L.D.’s change at the full moon. (Of course, in order to discharge the energy it absorbs from L.D., a human must wear it one night a month—thus becoming a monster him or herself…)
The problem is that the bracelet isn’t here. It’s at the end of a long, scary quest. The crew must travel from the Black Bridge of Doom across the Forest of the Lost and through the Tunnel of Tears to reach Nightmare Hill and its Library of Nightmares. On the way, Lily likes to make up macabre songs and sing them out loud. I love Lily. (Unfortunately, her voice seemed to be lost in the second half of the book as she faded into the narrator.) I hope I see more of her character in books to come!
After the party is attacked by Mazrak and his band, Jacob and Lily with Luna and half of Sploot Fah, must carry L.D. (thank goodness for baby-slings!) under, across, and through Always October’s cracks and hollows– without the help of Keegel Farzim, Mrs. McSweeney, or Gnarly, who are taken captive. Then, just as they reach the library, L.D. disappears! …Oh and there is a surprise waiting for Jake at the end of their journey, a big one!
The story is action-packed, and Coville shows a real talent with words when he waxes poetic. There is a reason he is one of the most beloved children’s book authors today. I became a fan after The Ghost Wore Gray, and have been a loyal follower through The Magic Shop series and all the tales of Moongobble the Magician. I loved Always October, the characters, the world, and the idea of October opening its arms to envelop us in its very being. I am glad Coville left the story open for a sequel. There was so much action in this one, I feel like I want to spend more time getting to know Jacob, Lily and Keegel Farzim over a cup of hot mulled cider. This is a must-read for those of us who live our everyday in Always October.
The Monsters of Morley Manor