School of Fear, by Gitty Daneshvari
Gitty Daneshvari’s debut novel for children, is recommended to readers aged nine or over. School of Fear, first published in the United States in 2009, is the first book in the trilogy, the second volume of which is due to be released in October.
The general premise of the novel is that four children from very different backgrounds are sent far from home to attend the School of Fear during their summer holidays. Here, they will ‘be forced to face their phobias head-on – in a desperate race to conquer them before term ends’. The novel itself opens with a letter of acceptance to the school, ‘an exceedingly select institution, run by the elusive Mrs. Wellington, aimed at eradicating children’s fears through unorthodox methods’.
We are introduced to the novel’s four main protagonists in relatively quick succession. The first is Madeleine Masterson, a pupil at the Brunswick School for Girls in Kensington, London. ‘Raven-haired’ Madeleine, who ‘had nothing but trepidation and fright for the start of summer’, is twelve years old and absolutely terrified of bugs. Her parents, sick with her fear, have been told by Madeleine’s counsellor, Mrs Kleiner, that she will benefit from visiting the School of Fear.
The second chapter then introduces Theodore Bartholomew, a ‘stout boy with alabaster skin, dark brown hair, and milk chocolate eyes framed by glasses’. Theo lives in Manhattan and is the youngest of seven children, all of whom find him an irritating burden. He has an ‘intense fear of death’ and obsesses as to whether every single member of his family are safe in his every waking moment.
The third protagonist is Lucy Punchalower, from Providence, Rhode Island. Whereas most believe that Lulu has a ‘penchant for speaking her mind, rolling her eyes and generally antagonizing those around her’, her classmates see her merely as ‘mean’. Lulu is terrified of confined spaces and is even deterred from going on field trips with her elementary school as she flatly refuses to ride lifts and the like.
The final main character is Garrison Feldman, a thirteen-year-old boy from Florida. He is something of a ‘local celebrity at his Miami middle school’, and is absolutely horrified at the thought of water. Garrison is the only one of the four children who has personally applied for a place at the school, begging his parents to fund the trip so that he is able to conquer his irrational fear.
The school is situated in ‘the wilderness outside Farmington’ in the state of Massachusetts. Its location is an isolated one, which sits atop a mountain with no road access. The children simultaneously see it as a place of ‘grandeur and pecularity’, where nothing is quite as it should be. The school has no other students aside from the four protagonists, and its headmistress, Mrs Wellington, is a hive of oddities and contradictions. A turtle lives in the bathtub, a blind man is employed as the school’s chef – ‘He hasn’t hurt anyone yet. Well, actually, that’s not true. I should say, he hasn’t killed anyone.’ – and one room is absolutely full of live bats and bees.
The beginning of each chapter lists a different phobia, some of which are related to the story and others which are not. These include such phobias as mottephobia (the fear of moths), nematophobia (the fear of names) and even phobophobia, the fear of phobias.
The novel uses an omniscient third person perspective, and the dialogue throughout works well, particularly with regard to the exchanges between the children. The language style and vocabulary which Daneshvari has used throughout has not been simplified in any way, rendering it a book which is as suitable for adults as children. The writing itself is rather amusing and quite descriptive, and the characters are built up well and they feel like believable people, if a little over the top at times. Carrie Gifford’s illustrations throughout are lovely and fit incredibly well with the story.
School of Fear is rather a fun, intriguing and cleverly styled novel. The story itself is inventive and filled with twists and turns. Daneshvari writes well and has created a series which will amuse scores of children and adults alike.
Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt