July 30, 2012 by Heidi
Title: The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Nikki Loftin [Website|Twitter|Facebook]
Standing: Stand alone.
Genre: Middle Grade, Fairy Tale, Horror
Published: August 21st, 2012 by Razorbill
Format: Hardcover; 304 pages.
Source: ARC from publisher via NetGalley
Challenge: YA/MG Fantasy Challenge
When my mom was alive, she read me stories every night. “Use your imagination, Lorelei,” she’d say, “and your whole life can be a fairy tale.” I wanted that to be true. But I should have paid more attention to the fairy tales.
Because not all of the children in them come out alive. And sometimes there are witches hiding in the woods.
These are the first lines of Nikki Loftin’s The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, and all that it took me to be sold on Lorelei’s story. Lorelei is an eleven year old girl, with more on her mind than all of the normal eleven year old anxieties. A year ago, her mother died–was killed–and Lorelei knows in her gut that she is responsible. Her brother blames her, and no longer treats her as a friend, the one friend she told hasn’t spoken to her since, and her father is too distant and busy with his replacement wife to care. Lorelei knows her new stepmother, Molly, is a witch–but really, Lorelei doesn’t know anything about witches. Yet.
When after only three days of construction the most miraculous charter school, Splendid Academy, appears not far from their home, Lorelei and her brother Bryan are delighted. The playground is the most amazing thing they have ever seen–it has everything! They want to go there very much, even if it is too good to be true, even if it appeared in three days. Even if their former school just happened to burn to the ground forcing nearly all of the kids in the neighborhood to attend. But it doesn’t take Lorelei long to learn that no matter how splendid things seem, something sinisterly sweet is happening at the Splendid Academy.
What I was certain was going to be a light, fluffy, fairy tale esque middle grade with shades of the dark fairy tales surrounding stories of Baba Yaga and Hansel and Gretel turned out to be much deeper and darker than I could have possibly anticipated. When the kids enter Splendid Academy, they’re welcomed with free reign, optional assignments, and next to no rules save one–eat. The kids are required to attend the school for not just lunch, but breakfast, have multiple snack times, snacks at recess, and endless candy at their desks. It doesn’t take much of a mental leap (or a background in fairy tales) to determine that these children are being fattened up for a witch’s brew, but the manor in which this tale plays out is delightfully menacing and sure to make chills run down the spines of the kids who will read it.
Friends, even before we entered the doors of Splendid Academy, my heart was breaking for Lorelei. She’d lost her mother only a year before, and is so certain she is not only responsible, but a murderer. Add to that guilt the fact that she struggles immensely in school due to dysgraphia (at least she thinks it’s dysgraphia because her father hasn’t bothered to get her tested), a disability similar to dyslexia where instead of words getting jumbled up while reading, they get jumbled up while writing. Lorelei can’t even read her own handwriting, and as a result she is labeled as an idiot who receives no special help. Her father is already remarrying Molly, who to me sounds like the most odious woman alive. At the wedding, Lorelei overhears Molly saying to the rector that she believes that it was God’s will that Lorelei’s mom died to make a place for Molly in their family. If I ever overheard anyone say this sort of thing in real life, I’d probably walk up and deck them.
Through these harsh realities, Nikki Loftin creates an atmosphere where we are constantly torn between wanting Lorelei to escape her family, and wanting her to escape the fate that awaits her at Splendid Academy. I love that I honestly didn’t know what choices I wanted Lorelei to make through to the very end. I couldn’t blame her for her willful naivety when she only wanted to regain the feeling of being loved that she’d lost along with her mother. I certainly couldn’t blame her for feeling pushed aside by her father and brother, and victimized by Molly who behaved so cruelly toward her.
Lorelei’s family and the staff at Splendid Academy aren’t the only cruelties she encounters. We are, after all, talking about eleven year olds. Lorelei makes a new friend at Splendid, Andrew, a boy who has struggled with obesity for life, and as such is more or less considered a social pariah. Nikki Loftin addresses the reality that for kids, being overweight is similar to having a contagious diseases. People avoid you, make fun of you, and certainly don’t include you. Andrew is the perfect friend for a girl who is feeling outcast, as he understands completely. Andrew has learned to control his hunger and cravings, and lost 40 pounds in the process. Together he and Lorelei seem to be the only two children able to resist the delicacies served up constantly at school.
I am curious about the illustrations, if Nikki Loftin illustrated herself? I didn’t see this stated anywhere, but nor was an illustrator listed. I loved the cover art for The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, as I am a big fan of incorporating the text into the scene, and it certainly evokes the feeling of the book. I didn’t feel as if the illustrations were particularly amazing, but they were cute and well incorporated into the story.
The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy is deliciously dark. The story holds a surprising depth of maturity and emotions, and is my favorite type of reminder that most fairy tales do not, in fact, end with ‘happily ever after’.
Likelihood that I’ll be back for more: Um…yes! Please write more dark and wonderful Middle Grade, Nikki Loftin, please!
Recommended for: Fans of A Tale Dark and Grimm, Breadcrumbs, or those who love the dark side of fairy tales in general. Honestly, I think this book is totally creepy, so it’s perfect for upper elementary school kids who love a bit of a scare (I do not think it is too scary).
Real life repercussions of reading this book: Oh my goodness. The food! Reading The Sinister Sweetness had me craving M&Ms, pop corn, cotton candy, marzipan, Skittles, you name it, this book has it. By the end I was beginning to suspect that Nikki Loftin herself is a witch attempting to fatten up all of her unsuspecting readers!
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None of my bookish friends have reviewed this one yet! If you have a review of The Sinister Sweetness, let me know.