OH MY GOODNESS. Jennifer Killick has created an INCREDIBLE novel in Crater Lake. Packed with horror and heart, monsters and mayhem, crushes and blushes, bullies and besties who must fight for the survival of not only their friends but the whole world.
I cannot recommend this highly enough it is just outstanding from start to finish! For fans of creeping monster MG horror such as The Switching Hour with a twist of cult campy horror fun like Sticky Pines but with more of a British feel.
Whilst stepping away from the comic fantasy of Alex Sparrow and taking the Whovian/Torchwoodesque horror of Mo, Lottie and the Junkers deeper and darker Jennifer has written something deeply brilliant here that harnesses her strength of writing realistic and relatable young boys with complexities of life and emotions and it is definitely worth taking a ride with the Year 6 class into Crater Lake, just remember never fall asleep.
Whilst this review doesn’t give away any spoilers it touches on some of the themes within that contribute to plot development, but do not spoiler the actual narrative.
It’s the Year 6 residential trip before Lance & his classmates leave for secondary school. Of course, the brightest and best like Chetan and the odious Trent are off to the prestigious exam entry only Bing Academy, but for those like Lance who is hated by the teachers for not paying attention and being disruptive in class, it’s the local comprehensive and he’s feeling bad about it because Lance’s behavioural issues are not intentional, he has secrets.
Secrets Lance is worried will come out at Crater Lake, but those worries are soon cast aside when everyone who sleeps at Crater Lake, even the teachers, awakes as a monster. Lance and his friends must survive the countdown to the bus returning, evade capture by the creatures and try to understand what has happened.
But can they work together when each of them have been holding back secrets and can they trust each other because the most important thing about Crater Lake is never fall asleep?
“Your experience at Crater Lake is going to be one you’ll remember for the rest of your lives.’
At first I thought this was a sort of Lord of the Flies meets Battle Royale with a side of monsters when really there’s such an undulating richness of cult horror influence here with hints from sources including but not limited to The Faculty, The Fly, Doctor Who, a whole heap of Stranger things and a little hint of the self deprecating comedy horror of Severance- just carefully tempered for Middle Grade.
But don’t think that the ‘for Middle Grade’ is an veiled way of saying ‘childish’, its more that the pitching and the meaning of it is much more accessible and orientated towards those in those tween years, but not to say that other age groups couldn’t enjoy it and there are lessons there that undulate beneath the middle grade banner. I absolutely loved it and I’m old enough to have a child in this age group (if me and the Elf had had one earlier that is)
For example, Jennifer is dastardly clever for she played a blinder of a trick and gets you to underestimate those children.
I might not be in the top group for maths. I might not be on the football team. I might not have the most houseplants. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have smarts and it doesn’t mean I don’t have skills.(Extra love for Jennifer making a distinction between smarts and skills of equal value)
Our protagonist Lance comes across at first as the naughty boy of the class, going nowhere, no skills or ‘saving graces’ in the eyes of teachers, he mouths off to other students and can’t even get into a good secondary school. But as the narrator and I have read Jennifer’s books before, I know that her protagonist will be a regular kid if slightly struggling but have hidden depths.
Lance is a boy full of heart and worry, he has an unfortunate saviour complex but also a lot of secrets (partly to do with his mother that is unclear until later in the book, and I was wobbly about guessing it) that he is ashamed of that are the reason for his inability to concentrate in class , sleepover with his friends and do well.
Whilst I guessed his own personal secret reasonably early on this was largely down to my life experiences and many readers even adults may not clue in on it.
If you want to help, show me a little respect and don’t treat me like a princess
But I did fall into massive traps with others especially Big Mak and Katya. The fact that I fell into these traps is part of the whole story and considering my reading range I have to applaud Jennifer Killick that she led me down that path like a dog on a leash distracted by biscuits.
And that is a strong lesson from this book Do not underestimate and do not make assumptions about others AND about yourself.
Lance underestimates his kind and gentle but woefully naive friend Chets’ ability to cope with pretty much anything which has stunted Chet’s personal growth. But he has also underestimated his other friends because he fails to communicate effectively with them and trust them with his problems, secrets and feelings, and in turn he only gets to know their depths and wider lives when their lives at in danger.
His Saviour/Hero complex causes him to make assumptions about himself needing to save everyone but in turn he constantly sacrifices himself, his needs and what he wants for others, whilst this quality is sadly what he needs to get through Crater Lake, it also holds him back from the teamwork & support necessary to survive too and risks that Lance will not walk away from this retreat.
She has a sweet giggle, it sounds like jingly bells
One of the things I especially love this for is that it is one of the few upper MG books that doesnt shy away from ‘crushes and blushes’. I really think it is a strong point of this book that Killick acknowledges that 11 year olds have crushes, and that this doesn’t have to be sordid or ‘going anywhere’ other than blushes and glowy heart feelings or showing off a bit more when you are near someone, or simply noticing how lovely something is about a person, their eyes, their laugh, their personality more than they do about others.
The truth is although perhaps uncomfortable for parents to think about there is a strong likelihood their own 11 year old has had quite a few crushes already and has formed some of the concepts that they may find attractive in a person.
The book doesn’t promote acting on those feelings, it simply acknowledges that these feelings can occur, and in different ways, and that sometimes they are reciprocated (but not necessarily MEAN anything), and sometimes not. Sometimes the character themselves don’t quite understand this warmth towards another person and indeed, beautifully, some characters aren’t there (perhaps yet) either and THAT is ok too.
We have other ways of making you sleep
Overall Crater Lake is a resounding success from Jennifer Killick, beautifully layered with heart and emotional development alongside cracking action and brilliant peril from the monster threat. I’m continuously impressed by her writing and thoroughly recommend this outstandingly good book, and am only sorry that I cannot quite communicate how brilliant it is!!
Crater Lake by Jennifer Killick is published by Firefly Press on 19th March
Thank you so much to Firefly and Fritha Lindquist for my copy.💜