When I was a kid I often rode my bike a few miles to the little library in the town where I lived. There I perused the stacks for hours before coming home with a nice selection of books. I can still remember often seeing John Bellairs' The House With a Clock in its Walls on the shelf and I recall reading the summation of the story on the back of the book but for some reason I never took it home... until now.
It's never too late to have a happy childhood so I decided to take a look at the story and see how it read to an adult... and the results were quite surprising...
The basic plot is that young Lewis Barnavelt's parents are killed and so he is sent to live with his uncle, Jonathan, in the town of New Zebedee. Lewis also meets Jonathan's best friend and next-door-neighbor Mrs. Florence Zimmerman. The boy quickly finds himself adjusting not just to a new home but also to the discovery that his uncle Jonathan is a minor wizard and Mrs. Zimmerman a much more powerful witch!
To complicate matters Jonathan's house once belonged to an evil wizard and witch and the faint ticking of a clock can be heard throughout the house but the clock it belongs to cannot be found! Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman believe this clock is a final curse left behind by it's former owners -- a curse that could spell the end of everything! Lewis must learn a few hard life lessons along the way to solving the mystery and saving the day before the clock strikes doomsday!
One of the first things that strikes you in reading this book is how straightforward everything is. Bellairs presents his characters with a kind of frankness and honesty that makes them feel real. They have certain quirks and eccentricities but nothing that makes them seem any more off-beat than that aunt or uncle every family seems to have who is the 'odd' member of the family (and usually the one who is the life of the family get-togethers). Lewis's Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman are also, unlike most adults in children's literature, not useless, or completely stupid. Certainly they try to disguise some of the truth from Lewis but only in an attempt to keep him from being frightened. They act out of caring and love not idiocy or selfishness. And Lewis himself is believably shy, insecure, and desperate for friendship in his new situation.
Even magic in the story is presented rather matter-of-factly which transforms it from the realm of the mystical into something that seems everyday -- of no more matter than flicking on a television set or booting up a computer. It is surprisingly refreshing in this post-Harry Potter realm of youth literature.
On the whole, if you've never introduced this book to the kids in your life (be they yours or someone else's) then do so. Have no fears about the book reading as something out of time or out of touch with modern life. There is an honesty here as well as a really solid adventure that moves at a measured pace and builds to a climax. With all of the youth literature now being committed to film it does make me wonder why no one has placed this story in front of a camera yet. The House With a Clock in its Walls is tailor-made for the big screen. As it is, set it loose on the big screen of imagination and watch the whole thing play out.