Alternately scary and hilarious, 'The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls' by Claire Legrand is one of the spookiest books you'll ever read. It's a Middle Grade horror novel, but no matter what age you are, you might find yourself cowering under the covers afterwards...hoping that the evil Mrs. Cavendish doesn't snatch you away and "fix" you.
In Victoria's painfully perfect, rich neighborhood, Mrs. Cavendish and her methods serve a particular set of needs. The need to have perfect children. The need to conform. The need to be the best, all day, every day -- even if it means losing your soul. Children disappear and people mysteriously forget about them until the day they return.
Of course, some children never return. And the ones who do return are never the same.
Victoria never noticed her missing classmates until her friend Lawrence disappears. Practically perfect Victoria must break the rules if she wants to get him back. Investigating Mrs. Cavendish is more dangerous than she knows, however. Can she resist falling under Mrs. Cavendish's spell?
'The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls' is full of wry humor, piercing wit and spine-chilling horror. Victoria is a delightful main character, in part because her impossible quest for perfection makes her so much like Mrs. Cavendish herself. Victoria truly struggles to forge actual human bonds and put other people above herself. You'd think that reading about such a selfish protagonist would be unpleasant, but on the contrary, Victoria's stubbornness and strength of character are endearing.
This book is also troubling in several (good) ways. It makes a definite statement about the harm done to children who are shunned for being "weird," "uncool," nonconformist and otherwise not perfect. Mrs. Cavendish lovingly tortures her charges in order to break them of having actual personalities. In one scene, she forces a formerly goth-artist type girl to copy the same picture over and over again. If the girl makes a mistake or tries to be creative, Mrs. Cavendish lashes her hand. The more her hand is lashed, the more it hurts and bleeds; the more her hand hurts, the more mistakes she makes; and the more mistakes she makes, the more Mrs. Cavendish lashes her, etc. Similar tactics are employed against other children as punishment for being different.
Fair warning: 'The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls' is not for the fainthearted. If you scare easily or don't like bugs, beware! If child abuse horrifies you -- as it does most people -- also beware. However, if child abuse horrifies you, then maybe that's a good reason to read this book. Fans of 'Coraline' will definitely enjoy 'The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls.' Why is it that children's books are often creepier than adult horror novels? Perhaps it's because of the fear a child feels when going up against the heartless world of adults, a world in which they have no power. Claire Legrand evokes that fear with painful clarity in 'The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls.'
Younger children and those who tend to get nightmares easily may want to stay away, though. The horror creatures will probably not terrify older readers, but then, that's not the most disturbing part of the book. The most disturbing part is that most of the parents want their children to be "perfect," even at the cost of what Mrs. Cavendish does to them.
But if you're looking for a horror novel, Stephen King has nothing on Claire Legrand. Five stars and two thumbs up.