The Jumbies is a middle-grade novel, which is geared a bit younger than what I usually cover here. I’ve given it a pass for a few reasons, but the most important one is this: I like to cover scary stories in October, and this one has some of the creepiest, scariest, sometimes grossest sequences that I’ve read this year.
It’s about Corrine La Mer, a fearless young girl who lives with her fisherman father. She grows the sweetest and juiciest oranges on the island, she can climb anything, and she catches and uses scorpions to teach her peers a lesson about tormenting helpless frogs. Her father has always told her that the stories about jumbies aren’t true, that they’re just silly superstition…but it turns out that his disbelief leaves him vulnerable when Severine, a powerful creature who can control all of the jumbies, comes out of the forest and into their lives.
Baptiste doesn’t shy away from true scares—or from allowing us to see both violence and its aftermath—but she tempers the tension with humor and with warmth. The narrative voice is matter-of-fact—fairy-tale style—but still atmospheric, especially the scenes set in the forest. There’s a thread that can be read either as commentary about loss of habitat or on colonialism—that will depend on how the reader views the jumbies—and it touches on slavery. It deals with fears connected to stepparents, it looks at how grief and loss and loneliness can lead to fiery rage. But it’s not all doom and gloom—it’s also a story about love, about family, about new friendships, about bravery and sacrifice and adventure.
The Jumbies was partially inspired by “The Magic Orange Tree,” a Haitian folktale, but also incorporates—as you may have guessed from the title—various jumbies from Caribbean folklore. My favorite ones—and by favorite, I mean the ones that I thought were the scariest—were the douens, creatures who look like toddlers, but who are as strong as an adult, who lure unsuspecting children into the woods, never to be seen or heard from again. As an adult reader, I found the idea of the jumbies more scary than the story itself, but another conference attendee told me that her tween daughter got so scared during the audiobook that she made her turn it off: “Mom, this is freaking me out. MOM, I AM SERIOUS.” I suspect that for some readers, that quote would be the best recommendation possible.
I saw Baptiste speak at Kidlitcon 2015 this past weekend, and she had a lot of smart, thoughtful things to say about writing scary stories for a young audience as well as about her love of folk and fairy tales. And she spoke about how, as a child, she loved her books of European fairy tales, but wished that they not only included pictures of girls who looked like her, who had brown skin—not as a servant or an enslaved person, but as a heroine—but also included the actual stories that she heard growing up in Trinidad.
It made me think, as I often do, about the importance of stories as windows and mirrors, about how we all ache to see ourselves in stories—about how seeing yourself in a story brings with it the knowledge that the world is aware of you, that you are included and embraced and acknowledged and seen—and about how stories can also open our eyes to unfamiliar lives and experiences. If you aren’t familiar with the concept of windows and mirrors in literature, please do read this essay by Rudine Sims Bishop—it may well change the way you perceive and understand and even think about stories and how they affect us, our perception of ourselves, each other, and the world around us.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.