Title: The Dead Boys
Author: Royce Buckingham
ISBN: 9780399252228
Pages: 201 pages
Publisher/Date: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, c2010.

“Hours later, Teddy awoke to the rapping sound of tree branches clawing at the house. He blinked in the darkness and looked around, bleary-eyed. He almost reached out from under the covers for the bedside lamp, but then he noticed the open window. He could have sworn he’d closed it.
Could the wind have somehow blown it open? he wondered. But even half asleep in the middle of the night he knew that didn’t make any sense. […]
It was then that he heard the scratching sound, like something with claws dragging itself across the new brown carpet. Teddy sucked in a breath–it was coming from under his bed.” (26-27)

Twelve-year-old Teddy Mathews has moved to the remote town of Richland, Washington so his mom can work as a chemist at the local nuclear plant. The same nuclear plant used to dump water into the nearby Columbia River, but Teddy’s mother swears they stopped doing that years ago. Looking for some new friends, Teddy runs across several twelve-year-old boys in the neighborhood, but each have something odd about them, and mysteriously disappear after his encounter. Doing some research on these boys that no one seems to know, Teddy stumbles across a town secret involving a large sycamore tree in the abandoned house next door. Could the tree be hiding more in its leafy shadow than anyone can predict?

This book is a good introduction to the horror genre for elementary school readers. Paying attention to the graphics at the top of each chapter, readers get a foreboding sense of what is going to happen with Teddy. The branches reach farther and farther out towards the figure of Teddy, who’s obviously fleeing from their grasp. There isn’t a lot of tension or build-up, because Buckingham tips his hat halfway through the book, letting readers know about the demonic tree, in case they hadn’t gleaned that information from the cover or the jacket. The second half of the story is Teddy trying to escape from the tree and save the previously captured boys in the process.

While the tension is there in the beginning, as an adult it’s the ending that has some loose ends that are solved fairly simplistically. I don’t want to ruin the ending, but the way adults suddenly come to terms with what happens is suspicious, and there’s no elaboration of how events are explained to others who are involved. Also, speaking as an adult I’m shocked that the pattern wasn’t discovered sooner, since a new comer with no investigative experience can solve a case that has baffled authorities for so many years. It begs a huge suspension of beliefs. The other boys are almost interchangeable, making it difficult to distinguish from one to another when you finally do encounter them all. The tree being the most memorable part of the book, it reminds me of Little Shop of Horrors or a scarier version of the children’s book The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks.

Librarians and teachers might want to hold off on giving it to younger readers who are prone to nightmares.