Wow! This book definitely wins the Darkness and Doom Award over all the other books I’ve read for the Cybils Science Fiction and Fantasy category so far. In fact, I can’t imagine a much darker bit of middle grade fantasy, unless it was one that chose to forego the conventional happy ending. If you’re going to check out Sinister Sweetness, I’m giving you the comfort going in of knowing that the book does have a happy ending. Otherwise, you might drown in all the darkness before you got there.
Lots of books these days, and a few TV shows, are riffs on traditional fairy tales. However, not too many books choose to take the story of Hansel and Gretel as a starting point. The whole “witch cooking children in an oven and eating them” is a sort of gruesome for a children’s book. Sinister Academy, however, rushes in where others fear to tread.
When Lorelei’s old school burns down and a sparkling new charter school appears near her home practically overnight, Lorelei is excited to enroll in Splendid Academy, especially since the principal, Mrs. Trapp, is so very understanding, and the school itself has very few rules and lots and lots of candy and other great food. It’s an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of kid-friendly treats every day at Splendid Academy, and only Lorelei and her new friend Andrew seem to have any suspicions that all may not be exactly as it seems at the wonderful Splendid Academy.
I read this book during breaks while I was judging a debate tournament, and that setting may have made the story feel even more sinister than it is. Or maybe it’s just that ghastly and monstrous. The teachers at Splendid Academy are the stuff of nightmares. I did think it was odd that Lorelei didn’t figure out what was going on at her new school more readily and that she didn’t run away from home as soon as she did figure it out. No, she just keeps going back to school every day, just like those people in the horror movie who open the door or go around the corner when the sinister music is playing or who enter the haunted house or tell everybody else to leave, “I’ll be just fine alone.” Nobody in the real world would return to Splendid Academy just as no one would ever stick around after the first few notes of that creepy movie music that tells you something really bad is about to happen.
Lorelei also has “it’s my fault my parent died of cancer” syndrome, a problem with which many children in middle grade fiction seem to be afflicted (cp. What Came from the Stars by Gary Schmidt, A Monster Calls by Partrick Ness, etc.) I’m not making light of the false guilt children sometimes feel when a parent dies or when parents divorce, but this unresolved guilt trope does seem to come up in fiction for middle graders over and over again. If you’re wondering, that part ends well, too.
Sinister Sweetness is for children who like grim and macabre, with a side dish of witches practicing cannibalism. It certainly doesn’t glorify or normalize Evil.