The Nest by Kenneth Oppel
Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, October 2015
Suggested age range: 10 and up
An ALA Notable Children’s Book for Middle Readers
For some kids summer is a sun-soaked season of fun. But for Steve, it’s just another season of worries. Worries about his sick newborn baby brother who is fighting to survive, worries about his parents who are struggling to cope, even worries about the wasp’s nest looming ominously from the eaves. So when a mysterious wasp queen invades his dreams, offering to “fix” the baby, Steve thinks his prayers have been answered.
All he has to do is say “Yes.” But “yes” is a powerful word. It is also a dangerous one. And once it is uttered, can it be taken back?
Celebrated author Kenneth Oppel creates an eerie masterpiece in this compelling story that explores disability and diversity, fears and dreams, and what ultimately makes a family. Includes illustrations from celebrated artist Jon Klassen.
-courtesy of Amazon
IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:
Perfection vs. Imperfection, Identity (are your flaws part of what makes you who you are?)
So what did we think?
Eva: Wow. Just wow. This was an INCREDIBLE book that totally blew me away, both as a reader and a writer.
Meagan: Me too. This is the first book I’ve read in awhile that I just LOVED with no reservations. Partly because it’s well done, and partly because it’s just my kind of book. Super-imaginative and inexplicably weird.
Eva: It’s one of those books that defies categorization. Is it an eerie fairy tale? A psychological thriller? A morality tale? I suppose it’s best categorized as middle grade (the protagonist is an eleven-year-old boy), but is it really meant for children? I would definitely recommend this book to teens and adults, as well as to older kids who can handle spooky stuff.
Meagan: This book reminded me so strongly of The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (one of my favorite books and authors). Ocean is an adult book, but it is also a category defier. The protagonist is seven years old for most of that story. Like The Nest, it is scary and has a lot of eerie, other-worldly stuff going on. This really got me thinking about what makes The Nest MG, which I do agree it is, while Ocean is usually categorized as adult. MG categorization is something I obsess about because I sometimes worry that my own work is not easy to categorize.
Here’s what I came up with: While the other world and antagonist in The Nest are strange, they are also relatively simple and straightforward. Ocean’s other world (and supernatural characters) are never really explained and a lot of complexity is left up to the reader’s imagination. Also, in The Nest the protagonist’s parents are basically on his side. They’re kind of unavailable and not as helpful as they should be, but they’re never actually in opposition to the protagonist. I don’t want to spoil Ocean for anyone who hasn’t read it, but one of the scariest scenes in it involves a parent siding against a child. That alone probably makes it too heavy to be MG. It also has a suicide and some other pretty dark aspects, so just to be clear: The Ocean at the End of the Lane = Not MG!
Eva: Speaking of spoilers…It’s hard for me to know what to say about The Nest because I don’t want to give too much away. I entered into this book knowing next to nothing about it, and I’m glad. I was immediately drawn in from the first beautifully-written and hauntingly-engaging paragraph:
The first time I saw them, I thought they were angels. What else could they be, with their pale gossamer wings and the music that came off them, and the light that haloed them? Right away there was this feeling they’d been watching and waiting, that they knew me. They appeared in my dreams the tenth night after the baby was born.
Meagan: So much my enjoyment of this book was rooted in solving the mystery and slowly figuring out how the different parts fit together. So, I agree, it’s a story that’s especially susceptible to spoilers.
Eva: What impressed me about this story was… pretty much everything, but for now I’ll say that the pacing and building of tension was fantastic. The book really plays with emotions and expectations. Things are not always what they seem, and the spookiness builds slowly until we reach a truly horror-filled climax. I can see this book giving an adult the heebie-jeebies, and I say that as a compliment.
Meagan: I was also impressed by many aspects of this book, but if I had to pick just one favorite quality it would be the simplicity. I know in the past I’ve complimented other books on their complexity, so maybe that’s kind of ironic. While a complex story can be super impressive in the way that a chef-created meal is impressive (the perfect blend of complimentary flavors, unexpected yet perfect combinations of textures, a great wine pairing etc.), a simple story like this one feels like a perfectly simple little story unit all on its own. Less like a multi-course meal and more like the very best clementine from the box. The one that’s easy to peel, and completely seedless, and juicy but not messy, sweet and tart all at once. Maybe I’m going too far with this comparison, but instead of an impressive composition of many things, The Nest is like a sweet little package that doesn’t need anything added.
Eva: I like that comparison! (Although I wouldn’t necessarily call this story “sweet.”) Oppel concentrates solely on the story he is telling and everything in the novel serves a purpose in the main storyline. He sets it in the summertime, I think, so that he doesn’t have to bother with Steve’s life at school. Unlike many middle grade books, this isn’t a weaving together of various school, family, and friend storylines. Oppel also doesn’t feel the need to “prove” to us that Steve is a real kid by showing scenes of Steve in real kid situations (eating lunch in the cafeteria, getting into squabbles with friends, etc.). Instead, Oppel focuses solely on this very strange experience that Steve is having.
The Nest is also written simply on a sentence-level, but that just makes it seem all the more deep — like fable with an underlying message. The story is also so imaginative. Without giving too much away, Steve begins having conversations with a wasp queen in his dreams, and the lines between what’s real and what’s a dream become blurred:
“And where I am now,” I said, looking around, “this is the nest, isn’t it?”
“It’s a real place. But I thought…”
“What did you think?”
“That I just dreamt you.”
“You are dreaming. But it’s also real.”
I wasn’t sure this made any sense. “But how can I fit inside?”
“Your dream self can fit into any space,” she said as if it were the simplest notion in the world. “Outside the nest you’re big. Inside you’re small.”
The idea of a wasp-fairy being able to “fix” a sickly baby brother is so interesting and creepy-cool. Since I just had a baby, I can’t help but wonder if Oppel himself is a parent. When I swaddled my baby for bed the other night, I suddenly saw the similarity to a wasp pupa tightly swaddled inside a silken cocoon. I wondered if perhaps that was where Oppel got the idea for this story.
Meagan: Not only is the line between dream and reality blurred, but there’s also a blurry line between “crazy” and “sane.” This dovetails perfectly with the book’s theme re: flaws that make us who we are. Steve has been to see a psychiatrist already because of obsessive tendencies and anxiety, so he is worried that others view him as “crazy.” Then the wasp queen uses this fear to manipulate him further (if he tells anyone about the wasps and their plans then he won’t be believed, might be considered schizophrenic etc.). Then, as the climactic scene plays out and Steve attempts to defend himself and his baby brother, as a reader I kept thinking…Steve looks completely crazy to any outside observer of these actions. He could end up getting himself and his brother killed by playing out some paranoid delusion. It is intense to say the least.
THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:
Eva: Others have compared it to Coraline by Neil Gaiman, and that’s what I would say as well. Every time Steve talks to the wasp queen he enters an “other” world much like the one Coraline enters. At first, it seems like a dream-come-true, but slowly the truth (and the horror) emerge. Meagan, I’m curious to know what you think because I know you’re a huge fan of Neil Gaiman.
Meagan: Absolutely, Coraline is a good comparison. And, as I mentioned above, I was reminded of The Ocean at the End of the Lane (also by Gaiman).
THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:
- An eerie fairy tale
- Building of suspense
- Deep themes in a simple story
- Simple yet effective language
- Keeping the focus on a single storyline
Eva: A masterfully-written tale of suspense and horror that also explores deeply spiritual themes — a must-read.
Meagan: Maybe I like “horror” (or at least certain kinds) more than I think I do. I think of myself as disliking scary books and trying to avoid them…but I wholeheartedly loved this one. Though I did avoid reading it at night.