Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest is a rare sort of book indeed — a children’s psychological horror novel that manages to build and sustain suspense for its target audience and for adult readers alike. The gorgeous and innovative jacket design and masterful illustrations by award-winning illustrator Jon Klassen are the icing on the cake of Oppel’s magnificently well-told tale.
As the college zoology major employed as his and his sister’s babysitter explains to Steven, the story’s protagonist, the wasps that have constructed a nest beneath the eaves of his family’s home are rather different from regular wasps. Steve’s was already deathly afraid of wasps but, not too many pages into The Nest, he discovers the hard way that he’s allergic to their stings. He’ll need to keep an EpiPen close at hand until he completes a regime of desensitization injections, assuming his parents ever get around to scheduling the shots at all. Meanwhile, that nest (which likely resembles the first nest shown in The American Museum of Natural History’s 6 Exquisite Structures Built By Wasps listicle) is getting larger with each passing day.
Steven has been plagued by overpowering feelings of anxiety and loneliness throughout his young life, so the possibility of dying from a wasp sting would probably be just one more thing for him to worry about if his longstanding psychological and emotional issues hadn’t been exacerbated by the recent birth of his sickly infant brother, Theodore. With the baby in and out of the local hospital on practically a daily basis, Steve’s mom and dad are running on empty, both physically and emotionally, much of the time and aren’t able to step up and provide their eldest child with the support and attention that he so clearly wants and needs. His younger sister, the family’s middle child now, is happy and content — perhaps because she’s oblivious to Steve’s travails and the health challenges facing the newest addition to their family.
It’s here that, as if in answer to his sort-of prayers, an otherworldly and seemingly omniscient being shows up in Steven’s dreams to assure him that she has the know-how and the wherewithal required to fix up baby Theo and is, in fact, already on the job. Everything is going to be OK! What a relief! Of course there’s a catch. Isn’t there always?
The kids in our Intermediate-level classes have had a week to read, re-read, and mull over the events of the first fifth of The Nest. Oppel does a great job of weaving the characters’ details and other background information into the meat of the story so even this first chunk of the book moves along quite rapidly. Needless to say, we’re really looking forward to getting our students’ reactions to what they’ve read. We’ll also be distributing wasp specimens preserved in acrylic, like those shown flanking our instructor copy of the novel in the photo atop this post. It’s going to be a blast!