You Can’t Escape The Wikkeling
Kids’ novel is engaging and spooky for adults, too
Young Henrietta doesn’t have much going for her. She’s squat, pimply and flushes easily. Her eyes are small and too close together. She ranks lowest in her class and is easily the least popular kid in the school. Yet this is the heroine of Steven Arntson’s The Wikkeling. In a brusque paragraph toward the beginning, Arntson tells the reader “This whole book will be about her—and it’s worth mentioning at the outset a few things that aren’t going to happen to her.” He goes on to list becoming beautiful, finding a cure for pimples and discovering she’s actually a princess. Arntson kindly suggests that if one wants a book of that nature, any school librarian can help.
By phone Arntson explains his honesty, saying that the paragraph was one of the first parts of the book he wrote. He was trying to situate himself in the universe where this was going to take place. “And hopefully people don’t find that too dire,” he says. He points out that there is a slew of books out there, especially for little girls, where the best possible happy ending is that the heroine is beautiful—and that the prince thinks so, too.
Arntson conceived Henrietta as a girl from the first moment he started drafting the book. He also knew he needed to think carefully about the message that he’d be sending other girls. “I want this to be an empowering read,” he says, “with a character that’s really intelligent and active and out there doing stuff and solving problems.”
Henrietta has a lot of problems to solve. She exists in a dystopian, but utterly believable, future where all people live in the Addition. It’s a sardine can of traffic, modular housing, floral-scented exhaust and disposable everything—so huge that citizens take airplanes from one part to another. It’s an ultra consumerist place where car horns blare advertisements. Children are also hyper-protected. Cameras monitor their beds while they sleep, they must wear roller-coaster-like harnesses to ride the school bus, and their parents get constant text messages of their whereabouts. Arntson succeeds early in the book in creating a world of convenience, health and safety, and making it horrible.
He says his own parents were pretty permissive, but that he’s holding things from his childhood up to a carnival mirror. Arntson was raised in suburbia on the edge of undeveloped country. He spent a lot of time there, “climbing trees and just doing, when I look back on it, pretty ridiculously dangerous stuff,” he says. “And, you know, my parents were pretty good about that. They were intelligently protective of me.” His dad checked out the woods and then gave him the freedom to play there alone. “That to me still seems like a healthy ideal,” he says. “The parent is out there looking out for the kid, but it’s not this insane situation that Henrietta’s world has—where the degree of safety almost comes out of this weird gluttony.”
Besides being plagued by the teasing of her classmates and the nagging of her overbearing parents, Henrietta also suffers from painful migraines. Before one strikes, she briefly senses a shadowy figure standing near her. Her doctor and mother both insist she has “house sickness,” from living in an old, non-plastic home. That’s the general feeling most of the book’s characters have toward anything older than brand new: It’s bad for you.
When Henrietta befriends another misfit, Gary, he tells her he can also sense the mysterious presence. One day, the figure flickers into full view in their gym class. The Wikkeling is a grotesque creature. It’s the size of a human, with a face “like pudding smoothed over a tiny nose,” and fingers that are “long, translucent tapers, like candles.” Henrietta and Gary quickly realize that only certain kids can see the Wikkeling—and that it wants something from them. The worst part is, a touch on the forehead from one of the Wikkeling’s creepy fingers is what causes those excruciating headaches.
An adult reader can be forgiven for tensing up every time the Wikkeling appears. The inscrutable and wholly inventive monster is straight from a bad dream. Watching Henrietta and Gary try to solve what the creature is and how to escape it, while also running away, forms knots in the stomach. The Wikkeling only utters a few repetitive words, such as “Where do you go?” Arntson says one of his first edits was to go through and try to make the book less scary. The story might still be too much for smaller children. “I went back and forth with the publisher about how many big words should be in the book,” he adds. “I wanted kids to stretch their vocabularies a little bit, but you don’t want to knock them out of the fictional scenario, either.”
An adult reader can be forgiven for tensing up every time the Wikkeling appears. The inscrutable and wholly inventive monster is straight from a bad dream.
More of the book’s bizarre bits include Henrietta and her friends finding a gigantic, secret attic above her house. They rescue a bleeding “wild housecat” from the hidden vault and feed it spider webs, the cat’s favorite food. In another subplot, a kindergartner’s parents run a top-secret library full of real books and fraternize with strange people from the Old City. Arntson has worked a thousand quirky details so seamlessly into the fabric of the world that readers never question a moment.
One lovely message is that there is value and wisdom in old things (and people), and that without them life can be hollow and baffling. Another topical theme is about giving children the chance to experience things and even take risks. Arntson mentions a study he read about whether new super-safe playgrounds are preventing kids from developing capacities they need. “Kids are driven to do these things as part of their individuation process,” he says, “and we’re systematically robbing them of that.”
The Wikkeling also encourages creating real connections—not through an i-Anything, but face to face. What happens when we let technology grow beyond our humanity is scary.
For the better part of the story, there are so many fleshed-out yet disparate aspects—with new ones being added very late in the game—it doesn’t seem possible that they will all wrap up. This has no bearing on the immense enjoyment factor of the book. But it turns out, every weird and wonderful thing has its place in The Wikkeling, and the meaning of each piece is unveiled in the triumphant end.
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