Flashback Friday: John Bellairs

For this week’s Flashback Friday post, I’m honored to have Maia Chance, author of the Fairy Tale Fatal series, here to do a guest post on what speculative fiction novel influenced her as a writer.

If you haven’t checked out her new book, Snow White Red-Handed yet, you should. Think Brother Grimm + Mystery + 1800’s = WIN. So we know that the Grimm fairy tales impacted her as a writer, but what else? Here is Maia to answer just that!


 

The cover of The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John BellairsWhen I was a kid, John Bellairs was my crack. I read and reread his novels from the local public library, and on the rare occasions when I had my own money to spend, I’d purchase a volume from the bookstore. I have a copy of The Curse of the Blue Figurine that I’ve lugged around from place to place for the past, well, going on thirty years.

When I want to read something really, really good (you know what I mean) I reread a John Bellairs book. And I’m going to confess something: these books have formed my imagination, like, the very STRUCTURE of my imagination, in ways that I don’t fully understand. It’s a lucky break that I hated those Sweet Valley Twins books, I guess. (Remember those? Ugh.)

Every time I read a Bellairs novel, I find some little detail or moment or concept that I’ve built into my own writing . . . stuff that I thought I’d made up out of the blue. But of course, we never make up anything out of the blue, do we? “Imagination” is a patchwork of everything we’ve experienced before. And John Bellairs has taught me some valuable lessons on how to write a good novel:

 1. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel.

Bellairs borrowed tropes from the long gothic tradition: hidden treasure, sacred artifacts, evil priests, haunted castles, desolate islands, ghosts, and the threat of violent Nature. Tropes that resonate because of their intertextual baggage and that seem, because of their cultural history, imbued with endless potential.

2. However, Do Roll the Wheel into a New Landscape.

Bellairs wrote one adult fantasy novel (The Face in the Frost) but the bulk of his work was gothic novels for kids. And they’re extraordinary. He explored the gothic potential of mid-century Small-town, USA in his fictional burgs of Hoosac, Minnesota and Duston Heights, Massachusetts. He used as his medium the creepiness of public libraries, church basements, local cemeteries, and autumnal parks lit by a single street lamp. I guess this is the very definition of “High Concept,” and Bellairs nailed it.

3. Make Your Protagonist an Underdog with Real Stakes.

Bellairs’s recurrent protagonists, Anthony Monday and Johnny Dixon, are scrawny, socially awkward kids in sneakers. (The old book covers had Edward Gorey illustrations that depicted these kids in Converse-like high tops). They come from cold families, and they’ve got real stuff at stake, like saving their family from financial ruin or paying for Grandma’s urgent operation. Or—oh, yeah—not getting killed by a pyscho wizard.

4. Give Your Protagonist a Unique—and Knowledgeable—Sidekick.

Bellairs’s kid protagonists have cool-yet-elderly sidekicks: Anthony Monday has Miss Eels, the birdlike town librarian, and Johnny Dixon is friends with the curmudgeonly Professor Childermass. These grownups don’t present a censoring force, but rather provide their expertise on, say, Egyptology, or lore about the eccentric town millionaire. They take the kids seriously and, well, they have cars. Which is helpful.

5. Stage a Spectacular Climax.

These were the books that I stayed up late reading as a kid, the ones for which I faked my dad out regarding “lights out.” (Lights out? WHATEVER.) And one of the reasons was that the tension in a Bellairs novel mounts relentlessly. You get the ticking clock. The rising stakes. The natural menace—the town is flooding, say, or they’re out in the mountains on a cliff—and then it all comes together with peril and supernatural forces and a heart-in-your throat flipping of the pages.

Dear John Bellairs (residing now somewhere in Writer Heaven, where words flow like water from a faucet): Thank you. For everything.

 

3 comments

  1. Thanks Maia. I need to read some John Bellairs. I somehow missed these when I was a kid, but we are all still kids at heart (if you dig deep enough).

    Zach

  2. @Zach Agreed. Not sure how I missed these either!

  3. I’ve not heard of this author either. My kids would probably like these! Now I need to check out those and your mystery, Maia.

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