I’m a fan of Oliver’s other works (and had previously reviewed Vanishing Girls here on this blog), and so I was excited to receive an ARC of her new book, Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head.
The Shrunken Head tells the story of Philippa, Sam, Thomas, and Max, all orphans who make their way to Dumfrey’s Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders. Philippa (Pippa) is a mentalist that can read the contents of people’s pockets, and sometimes their minds; Mackenzie, known as Max, is near-deadly with her throwing knives; Sam is a young man of extraordinary physical strength; Thomas can contort himself to fit into the smallest of spaces. Once these four get together at the museum, strange things begin to happen, and all of the odd occurrences seem tied to the appearance of Dumfrey’s newest acquisition, the titular shrunken head. The four orphans must work together to determine who is at the bottom of all of the strange events, while managing to keep themselves out of trouble in the process.
Superficially, the novel seems “light” and adventurous for middle grade readers—it is filled with mystery, intrigue, and just a skosh of the supernatural. But it is perfect in that because of the group’s extraordinary abilities, they have a bit of a more difficult time fitting in. Even the press labels them as “freaks,” something every pre-teen and teen feels like at least once or twice a
week month day. Hell, even I still feel like a freak on a fairly consistent basis.
One of the most important lessons the kids learn is acceptance. They learn to accept themselves for who they are, such as when Max finally realizes “the real freaks were…people who could hide their true selves completely, as if all their lives they were wearing Halloween masks.” Thomas learns to accept that some people act out of fear instead of reason or love: “He knew that people were afraid, and they disliked difference, and they sometimes acted cowardly.” Pippa recognizes that where we feel at home isn’t always a house or with the people who brought us into this world: “The museum was everything to [Pippa], as familiar as breathing, as close and comforting as the dented space in her mattress that fitted her body exactly.” The four child wonders also learn how to work together, even if they do not always agree or see eye to eye. Everyone has these major realizations about life. It’s rather impressive, actually, that these young teens have them so young, whereas for some people it takes them well into adulthood to figure those things out.
Oliver’s third book for middle grade readers is a mixture of adventure, mystery, and life lessons. In short, a perfect combination.