I was going to read multiple Goosebumps books, but after rereading Welcome to Dead House (the first Goosebumps ever), I realized they’re all one and the same. At least, the first 40 or so books are.
You see, RL Stine’s writing is so wonderfully predictable that when you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. Almost! While each book is unique in its own strangeness (like how My Harriest Adventure isn’t your average werewolf book) they all have recurring descriptions, plot devices, and characters.
Here are examples:
- Character: the clueless parent
- Plot device: moving to a new house where the house/people/neighbourhood situation doesn’t feel normal
- Description: saying “carton” instead of “box”, and “den” and “rec room” instead of “living room”, “family room” or “study”
- Plot device: the chapter that ends in a cliff hanger
- Character: the prankster who is either an annoying sibling or comedic best friend
- Description: overused sensory details, such as crunching leaves underfoot in book 1
- Description: a feeling disconnect from reality when something frightening happens to the main character
- Description: author unable to explain a frightening quality about a villain
- Plot device: cliffhanger ending, even though loose ends were tied up at the end of the novel
While the above are not all in the first book, reading #1 reminded me of them. The latter three are the most important qualities of classic Goosebumps books.
Disconnect from reality
I’m surrounded by death, I thought.
Then, frozen to the spot, unable to breathe, the darkness swirling around me, the gravestones spinning in their own black shadows, I thought: What is he going to do to me?
What strikes fear into your heart more than not knowing what to do and feeling stuck in your spot? Stine uses this many times for his main characters when they first realize something frightening is happening to them.
In Let’s Get Invisible (#6; I can’t believe I know the number without having to look it up), this disconnect is the plot; the characters discover a magic mirror and light (in the house to which they’d just moved, fancy that) that turns them invisible. The longer you stay invisible, the more disconnected you become from the world.
Unable to explain a frightening quality
“We need new blood,” [ghost character] said, his eyes glowing red in the dim light. “Once a year, you see, we need new blood.”
Since when do ghost eyes glow? And they’re vampires now?
While the story of how everyone came to be ghosts is told, no one explains why they need blood.
Cliffhanger ending (SPOILER ALERTS)
The town seems to rejuvenate, greeting newcomers to the town in the same way the main characters were. There’s no explanation as to how the villains are able to rise again, and while the main characters escape, the indication that the villains are still at large is frightening.
Stine is good at this. He gives us a sense of completion and hope while keeping goosebumps on our skin.
This doesn’t always work. In Be Careful What You Wish For (#12), as soon as the main character escapes her curse, she’s turned into a bird and seems to be completely OK with this. Since I first read that book as a child, it has confused me.
Despite the above, Goosebumps are still entertaining depending on your villain preferences. Do you fancy a bloodthirsty hamster? How about an abominable snowman? A be-planted scientist? Really, the possibilities are endless. I mean, really. They keep coming out with more. Examples: Return to Horrorland, Fear Street, Choose Your Own Adventure, Zoo 2000, and ERMAHGERD there are too many.
For the last leg of my American Girls kick, I read Kaya’s series and have incredibly mixed feelings.
In the long run, I’m more than glad AG finally stepped up with a Native American girl. Although Kaya lives not too soon before the United States were born, she is dated as the earliest living American Girl (so far).
This series is far darker than I remember any AG series being. Lots of people die, and there’s more peril in each book. I enjoyed learning about a culture completely new to me, and saw how spiritualism and nationalism can go hand in hand.
Accompanying Kaya’s family pride is a respect of nature. Nature, in turn, provides for the nation. The Nimíipuu travel the land per the seasons connecting with extensions of the nation and, at the same time, giving thanks.
She felt the presence of the people who had passed this way before her.
Kaya is in tune with how special the earth is to herself and others. This is much more than I can say for the other American Girls thus far, who are typically concerned with only materialism and family, not so much the state of the land or the spiritual connections around her.
What I have beef with concerns stylistic approaches. Most noticeably, the books seem to be out of order, both at first glance and after reading. Each series, up to Kaya, shared similar titles. (Meet, Lesson, Surprise, Birthday, Saves, Changes) You knew “[character] Learns a Lesson” was a school time story. The second book was always a school time story. With Kaya, the second story is titled “Kaya’s Escape!” and has nothing to do with school-like lessons. The plot is more befitting book 5, in which the main character saves the day.
What did they title the fifth book, then? “Kaya Shows the Way.” This book doesn’t show the typical action scene on the front cover like the others. No. It shows Kaya sitting down with someone. SITTING. Come on, AG, I know after reading the series that Kaya is made of much more than that. I feel gipped.
Another way in which I feel gipped is the writing. Despite all Kaya goes through, there isn’t much character development. At least, it didn’t feel that way. It seemed as if author Janet Shaw was trying so hard to describe the scenery that she forgot about the people and personalities. The secondary characters were more interesting to me than Kaya herself, most times.
I’m sure Shaw wanted to portray Kaya as a hopeful person, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen so many rhetorical characters in 50 pages. Kaya once asks herself, “Could these be Two Hawks’ people?” when it’s obvious they are. In another book, Kaya makes note that a herd of horses had disappeared from sight.
Had the lead mare taken the herd where it was cooler?
It’s obvious they moved, of course! She could have instead thought, “The lead might have taken the herd where it was cooler.” Kaya wonders about everything that’s right before her very eyes, but I know it’s not her fault. It’s the writing.
The frontier-like setting reminded me I haven’t read the Kirsten story in a while. Her books had stuck with me as being more boring than the other American Girls, and I now know why; she shares an author with the Kaya series. I may still read Kirsten in the future, but at the moment I’m AG‘ed out.
(I would like to extend my gratitude to Valerie Tripp, the first writer to make me curious about the person behind the words.)
But lastly, I hope the Pleasant Company can have more Native American series. After all, every tribe has lived in the United States longer than anyone.
I’m still waiting for a Japanese-American girl. Since they’ve gone as recent as the 1970s, maybe they’ll have a Japanese girl for the swingin’ 1960s who has some personal trouble after finding out her parents met in a Japanese Internment camp.
I look forward to future American Girls.
Kit was the first American Girl to be published after I’d left the series for more adult books. To be honest, up until this summer I wasn’t at all interested in her because she’d seemed to overshadow the other American Girls. Oh, me of little faith.
Soon after the first book, I could see why Kit seemed to be more popular; the stories offer sound advice and empathy for girls whose families are trying to survive the Recession that began in 2008.
On a personal note, it is always easy to find something in every AG series that connects you to the main character. For me, it was Kit’s love for writing. The scene in which she loses herself in writing a fictional story (Kit’s Surprise), especially, was when I truly began to appreciate her.
By the end of this series, I noticed something I’d taken for granted: the illustrations. Reading Samantha earlier was a nice step back into my own time when the illustrations reacquainted me with the books’ familiarity. I’d known the characters well enough that I forgot to look deeper at the picture. With the new experience of Kit, I felt the same sense of familiarity. I know the style of the artists AG hire, but there was more. In Kit Saves the Day, Kit performs a dangerous, Harold Lloyd-esque feat that threatens her life. As I turned the page when reading, I found myself captivated by the life and many emotions that were crossing her mind. This image was worth more words than were put on the page. It can be found on the cover of current publications.
On the writing side, I could also appreciate the guests in their boarding house for their artistic occupations.
“Mrs. Bell told a funny story about Mr. Bell trippig over his sword in a play. That reminded Mr. Peck of the time three strings on his bass fiddle popped during a concert. And that reminded Miss Finney of a patient who was an opera singer and sang whenever he called for her.”
I knew an opera singer who used his opera voice to call for people. I wished we could have learned more about the boarders, who always seemed to me more interesting than the Kitterage family.
The “A Peek into the Past” section at the back of every book seemed to be a little more depressing than other series, but the stories of Kit reminded me what else I like about American Girl: their positivity.
“ ‘I think,’ Stirling said slowly, ‘that it’s okay to want something, even if it seems impossible. Isn’t that the same as hoping?’
‘That’s right,’ said Ruthie. ‘And hope is always good. If we jut give up on everything, how will anything ever get better?’ “
While the stories themselves were good, they were still simplified. Even reading as a young person, I knew a lot of events were glossed over. Reading these books as an adult, I don’t mind because I’m still learning from it. As I said in my post on Samantha, one learns historic vocabulary in context. In Kit, one also learns standard vocabulary. Where else in the children’s literature world would one find the word ‘cantankerous’?
I can’t wait for more.
I grew out of the American Girl series right before Kit was introduced. Quite a few things have happened to the company since then. They’ve added more stores to their single location, discontinued a few girls, and changed the titles of each new, six-part series. What hasn’t changed is how I love each individual American Girl. Well, not much.
Let’s get this out of the way: my favorite is Felicity! I love the clothes and customes of that era and always found it excited to see how she fared while her home was unsure of its own future (the Revolutionary War). Molly also has a special place in my heart, and I think I liked her because she was—-was-—the most current. I reread Addy a few years ago and loved her all over again.
For this summer, I reread Samantha. She’d been on my mind as of late, and I wanted to relive one AG series I already knew before delving into the more recent publications. She always seemed to be a bit of a princess for me, but I loved the customes of that era. I loved the frills of the fashions. I loved the wrought iron desks. One year, I begged my mom to make petit fours for my birthday. (They looked terrible but were delicious!)
This series especially introduced me to Dickensian themes with Samantha’s poor friend and multiple accounts of conditions in the city.
A specific line from the Samantha series also got me obsessed with iron fences.
The building looked as if it had been built out of blocks of dirty gray ice. It was surrounded by a fence of sharp black spikes. Samantha couldn’t tell if the spikes were meant to keep visitors out or the orphans in.
And the writing? It surprised me. It’s basic while vocabulary-building. It’s not as lame and pandering like some books I’m reading now. The characters aren’t moping around that they live in an outdated time. American Girl gives a really good perspective on what life was like beyond the drama. Needless to say, AG was my introduction to historical fiction, one of my favorite genres of books/films/music today.
Furthermore, Samantha (and Felicity) introduced me to tea time! My introduction to tea began around fourth grade and went horribly. My best friend Jess, who introduced me to AG, and I concocted some terrible mixtures of milk, sugar, and watered-down tea. We got used to it, though. Since then, one of my dreams has been to have a proper tea time in England.
Another dream has been to visit Williamsburg, Virginia and their live history museum. Or are they called Living History museums. Either/or.
The American Girls I’ll be reading next are Kit and Kaya, library reserves willing. (I’ve been waiting at least a month for one installment of the Kit series to come in. Summer reading programs abound in my city.)
I do have a little rant on AG, but I will save that for another post.