The Dead Boys, by Royce Buckingham (Putnam, 2010, middle grade, 208 pages)
Teddy is less than thrilled about moving to a small town in the desert of eastern Washington, where his mother has gotten a job as a nuclear scientist. There's a month before school starts, the heat is horrible, and Teddy is being forced by his mother to leave the air-conditioned comfort of home (such as it is) to Make Friends.
The massive sycamore tree across the street, however, is more than a little pleased to have a new boy in town. And neighborhood dead boys are eager to make a new friend too.
Because this isn't any tree--it's a monster created by radioactive waste, that feeds on the life force of its victims--12 year old boys. Boys just like Teddy. The tree takes just enough to feed itself, while keeping the boys trapped in a hideous half-life. But every decade, it craves new, fresh, young blood. Like Teddy's.
This is one of the most riveting books I've read all year. Teddy's encounters with the dead boys, and the unravelling of the mysteries surrounding them, makes for great, horror-full, reading (without being so nightmarish as to bother my tender sensibilities). Buckingham's gradual build up to the final confrontation is deft and unrelenting, and the sufferings endured by the other boys are chilling. But there's more than just horror here- Teddy is a very appealing hero, who makes choices based on friendship and loyalty.
Yeah, you have to suspend your disbelief tree-wise, but if you can accept an Evil, Blood-Sucking Tree of Death, you'll enjoy this one lots! In short, The Dead Boys is a book I want to hand to every (strong-minded) middle grade boy I know, because I bet it will grip them just as much, if not more, than it did me!
Here's how my reading went. Started book at 3 pm. Read straight through. Finished at 3:40, feeling very satisfied with both book and self. Despite fast reading, pictures from the book are crystal clear in my mind, but fascinating, rather than troubling. Mainly because the Tree is so over the top (but in a way that Works!).
(Is a radioactive evil tree, a bit of time travel, and some half-dead characters sci fi or fantasy? I dunno, so I've put both labels on it).
Here's a great interview with Buckingham at Through the Tollbooth, where he talks about writing scary books for boys.