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A wonderful children's book by John Bellairs with illustrations by Edward Gorey.

This book has everything I ever wanted in a story as a child- magic, cookies and cider, enchanted garden parties, old houses with big fireplaces and lots of rooms, weird relatives, necromancy, car chases, bickering old people, the end of the world... everything.

Synopsis:Lewis, a boy of about 11, has lost both of his parents and must go to live with his uncle Jonathan, a mildly eccentric man that his church-going aunts have warned him against. Uncle Jonathan and his friend and neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman turn out to be white magicians (and good poker players). Lewis, being chubby and unathletic, is unpopular and in danger of losing the one friend he has made since moving to town. To impress him, Lewis secretly performs a spell from one of his uncle's books in front of a mysterious tomb in the local graveyard.

Soon, the deceased former owners of Uncle Jonathan's house -an extremely powerful and evil wizard and witch by the name of Izzard- seem to have moved in across the street. At the same time, the ticking noise that seems to come from everywhere in the house has increased in volume and frequency. Scared that these two phenomena might be connected to what he did, Lewis spills his guts to Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman. The three must stop the Izzards from getting to the clock in the walls for if they reach it, it would mean the end of the world.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls
by John Bellairs
Illustrated by Edward Gorey
Published by The Dial Press, 1973


The House With a Clock in Its Walls is a children's chapter book, halfway between fantasy and a ghost story. For many of us older folks it is a shining beacon of good young adult literature, and of a good spooky story. Despite being forty years old it remains fairly popular today, and you can probably find a copy at your local library. There are editions as recent as 2004, along with dozens of older editions.

The book starts in the Summer of 1948. Lewis is travelling to live with his mysterious uncle after losing both parents in an auto accident. He doesn't know much about his uncle, a Mr. Jonathan van Olden Barnavelt, aside from the fact that his elderly aunts didn't like him. He is pleasantly surprised to find that his uncle is quite nice, unusually interesting, and extremely odd. He lives in a sprawling Gothic mansion, and despite appearing to be somewhat afraid of clocks, the house is full of them. They spend Lewis' first night playing poker using French war tokens as markers, along with the elderly Mrs. Zimmerman who lives next door. It slowly also emerges that his uncle and Mrs. Zimmerman are both some sort of magician.

Even so, life goes back to normal pretty quickly -- which for Lewis means being teased about his weight and being chosen last (if at all) for sports teams. In an attempt to win the friendship of one of the cool kids, Lewis promises to perform a magic spell. And not just any spell, but the biggest he can think of -- raising the dead. Well, Lewis is a smart kid, and his uncle has a big library. Soon he's ready to raise his first corpse, but he ends up raising something a bit worse than even he feared...

This is one of the best children's books around as far as black magic and zombies are concerned (the traditional sort of zombie, not the viral-brain-eater sort). It has lighthearted magic, a super-nerdy hero (most of the fun magic involves reenacting historical battles), lots of scary noises (and corpses) in the night, and an interesting historical perspective. And, of course, a small but entertaining set of characters.

While it is an excellent book, it is also a bit dated. It has a number of references that are cryptic today, even to adults. Other references aren't cryptic at all, but aren't quite what we expect in a modern children's book -- for example, the enticing description of Uncle Jonathan's very cool hookah (used for tobacco, of course). This mostly just serves to make it even cooler, but young children may have trouble following parts of the story. While it is often recommended for ages 8-12, I would expect it to be a read-aloud book for most children under 10 (and a good one!), and continue to be entertaining to children on up through 15 or so -- although older children are likely enjoy it just as much, despite being older than the protagonist.

This is the first in the Lewis Barnavelt series, which is the first of Bellairs' series. The next book in this series is The Figure in the Shadows, which is also a very good read. It should be noted that Bellairs only finished three of the Lewis Barnavelt books before he died, and the later nine books were either completed or entirely written by Brad Strickland.


Accelerated Reader level: 5.4
ISBN-10: 0142402575
ISBN-13: 978-0142402573

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