A review of Nightmares! by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller
with illustrations by Karl Kwasny
Published 2014, Delacorte Books for Young Readers
It would be naive to pick up a book written by a celebrity and not have even a little doubt as to its authorship, veracity, literary merits, or even intention. A lot of people dream of being able to call themselves an author. For famous people, it’s extremely easy to make that dream come true because publishers go for authors with an already-solid fan base. The marketing department just has to go to work, and that book is sure to be a bestseller regardless of, well, in some cases, everything.
With that in mind, and with my experience from another celebrity book, my expectations of Nightmares! were on the low end. I absolutely adore Jason Segel, he has shown that he has writing chops, and—I’m making this next assumption based on the alphabetical-by-first-name and same-type-size appearance of their names—co-author Kirsten Miller enjoys equal billing on the cover. Even so, I braced myself for mediocrity.
So I start reading and in the first paragraph, I spot a dangling modifier.
But judging by the miserable expression on his face, something was terribly wrong.
Anyway, I read on, I finish the first chapter, and I think it might not turn out to be a bad book. In exactly eight vividly written paragraphs, the book was able to tell me that this house feels as creepy as it looks on the cover, that 11-year-old Charlie Laird moved here three months ago after his widower father married the heiress of the house, that Charlie hasn’t had a good night’s sleep since—because, well, as you can surmise from the title, his dreams haven’t been peachy—and that he thinks the worst part of the house is Charlotte, his stepmother.
The book did a really good job in establishing just how much Charlie hates her. The moment they met, Charlie already thought her laughter was more like a cackle. He secretly refers to her as the stepmonster, at one point calls her a ‘crazy woman’ to her face, and tells her that she stole his family. He abhors her so much that the star of his nightmares, an evil witch, is a green, pointy-hatted version of his father’s new wife.
In Nightmares!, the evil stepmother was more than a trope. She was Charlie’s perfect scapegoat for everything that has been going wrong with his life—his sleep loss, his frightful dreams, his brother Jack’s insistence to keep wearing his Captain America costume, his father’s decision to grow a stupid beard. She becomes such a source of anger that Charlie starts disengaging from his friends and family, and blames her even for the loss of his mother. And in this festering anger, Charlie’s nightmares find power to trap him in their world while they break into his.
It’s not dazzlingly original (see Elm Street), but it’s a good plot. The writers demonstrated that they would be perfectly capable of creating a humorous, exciting, and action-packed story with such a plot. For some reason though, they decided that the way to develop the story further is to trap Charlie’s three best friends with him in the nightmare world so that I can read about the four of them and see the four of them face their fears.
I could have meant it too. The world of Charlie’s nightmares is horrifying and the authors did a wonderful job in turning classic scary characters into characters that were somehow both cute and disturbing—much like the story when it’s good. But the book just didn’t give me enough time to care about Charlie’s friends. It gave all three kids a grand total of 1.5 chapters screen time to introduce them to me before expecting me to be concerned about what happens to them if they get sucked into Charlie’s nightmares. I don’t even remember their names. And I’m sure it’s just an exposure problem, because the only thing that kept me reading was the fact that they were all there to help rescue Jack. And I like Jack. Jack is cute.
In conclusion, I wasn’t completely happy with this book, which is a shame to say because if it didn’t lose its focus on Charlie and his family, it might have become the book to change my mind about celebrity publications. But even though it wasn’t a total success, the book had enough merits to convince me not to give up on celebrity writers just yet.
(James Franco poetry, here I come?)