Sunday, June 17, 2007

Apple #248: John Bellairs

Have you ever read this book?

It's The House With a Clock In Its Walls, and it's one of my favorite books, ever. Yes, it's for young adults, but a good book is a good book no matter what age it's for. If you haven't read it -- and if you like the Harry Potter books -- you should definitely check it out.

The book is about a shy, overweight kid named Lewis Barnavelt, whose parents are dead and so he moves to a small town in Michigan with his large, bearded, mysterious Uncle Jonathan. Uncle Jonathan's house is old and full of strange objects like umbrella stands and mirrors that display strange images -- all of which make sense when Lewis discovers that his uncle is a wizard. Not only that, but the house used to belong to a different wizard before Uncle Jonathan, a malevolent wizard. The previous wizard hid a clock somewhere in the house, a clock whose ticking becomes louder and more threatening as Halloween approaches, and Lewis must find it.

Lewis Barnavelt, as drawn by Edward Gorey

That's the plot. But there's more. The book's author, John Bellairs, has an easy touch in creating the likable overweight Lewis, the gruff but loyal Uncle Jonathan, and the eccentric neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman who likes purple. Along with the suspense that makes me say out loud things like, "Uh-oh, that's bad," and "Ooh, I knew he shouldn't have done that," Bellairs manages to convey a coziness, with people eating chocolate cake and playing cribbage in the evenings.

I first read this book long ago, back in yon Apple Lady's youth, and then a few nights back, I was at a friend's house, perusing her bookshelves, and I saw that she had several books by John Bellairs. Excited, I asked her about them. She said, "Dude, John Bellairs rocks."

She, too, had read The House With a Clock In Its Walls in her younger days, but she had also read many of his other books, and these were what she had on her shelves. She flipped through a few of them, showing me that Edward Gorey had illustrated some, and that Mercer Mayer had illustrated some others.

"I opened this one up," she said, pulling The Figure In the Shadows off her shelf and turning to a picture of a boy stealing another boy's Sherlock Holmes cap, "and this picture took me right back to fifth grade."

She was kind enough to lend me two of her Bellairs books:

The Figure In the Shadows is a sequel to The House With a Clock. In this book, Lewis is being bullied and though his friend Rose Rita tries to stand up for him, he is ashamed that a girl is protecting him. He finds a magic coin in an old trunk of his uncle's and discovers that the coin gives him a strange sense of new-found power. But soon, the coin begins to exert other powers as well. . . .

The Curse of the Blue Figurine is about a different young boy, Johnny Dixon, who lives in a small town in Massachusetts with his grandparents. He goes to Catholic school and discovers in the basement of the accompanying Catholic church a mysterious blue statue with a note warning that anyone who removes it from the church will bring vengeance upon his head. Nervous Johnny is startled by a noise in the basement, so he runs out of the church still holding the figurine, and now he's in for it.

I read both of these books this weekend. I liked them both (though I liked Lewis and his uncle a touch better than the bookish Johnny), but I also noticed enough similarities that I started to wonder about John Bellairs. Both books were set in the 1950s, both of their main characters went to Catholic school, both boys got picked on by tougher kids, both boys were orphans in some sense.

So let's see if I can identify some similarities.

John Bellairs, altar server.
He looks almost exactly the way I pictured Lewis Barnavelt.
(Photo from Bellairsia)

Bellairs Himself

Bellairs Characters


Marshall, MI

Lewis Barnavelts’: New Zebedee, MI

Elementary school

St. Mary’s Roman Catholic

Johnny Dixon’s: St. Michael’s Roman Catholic



Lewis: Fat and moon-faced

Social Habits

Often alone, “scaredy-cat”

Johnny D. and Lewis B: both bullied by bigger, tougher boys

Reading Habits

Voracious reader

Johnny D: complimented on his reading abilities


Joined Latin and Chess clubs

Lewis: knows Latin quite well

Johnny: plays chess with the professor across the street


Grandmother died 1951 (John was 13)

Lewis: both parents dead

Johnny: mother died of cancer, father fighting in the Korean War

Other Places

Taught at Merrimack College, MA

Johnny Dixon lives in Duston Heights, MA, near the Merrimack River

So, yeah, a lot of things in common between the author as a youth and his young leading men. And he's even acknowledged those similarities in various letters and interviews.

"The heroes of my books are loners and outsiders because that's the way I felt when I was a kid," Bellairs wrote in a letter. "If you're fat, brainy, can't play sports and are physically cowardly, you don't fit in." -- Bellairs

"Writing seems to be (for me) a way of memorializing and transforming my own past. I write about things I wish had happened to me when I was a kid." -- Bellairs

(Photo from Calculo's page on John Bellairs)

Bellairs died in 1991 of heart disease. However, author Brad Strickland was asked by John's son Frank to complete four of his father's books that he left unfinished. Strickland also wrote three new books based on Bellairs characters. Reminds me of what's still going on with V.C. Andrews -- writing from beyond the grave.

Thanks for the books, John B!

Bellairsia, John Bellairs Biography
Carol Schaal, "John Bellairs: The Spooky Writer Who Cast a Magic Spell,"
Notre Dame Magazine, Summer 2003
Thinkquest site about all the Bellairs books, authored by six twelve year-olds, The Authors page
Kelly Sedinger, Bellairs Lewis Barnavelt Books, Green Man Review

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article! We will be linking to this great article on our site.Keep up the great writing.


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