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Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go

Review

Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go

Eleven-year-old Milton Fauster is a straight-A student, boy scout and chess club legend. In other words, he is a model citizen. Or was, until his "blue-haired, thirteen-going-on-thirty-year-old" sister Marlo, who thrives on committing random petty (and not-so-petty) crimes, tricks him into stealing a tube of kiwi-cantaloupe lip gloss. When both kids are killed soon afterwards in a marshmallow bear explosion at the Mall of Generica in Generica, Kansas, they find themselves in the first level of Heck, Limbo. It turns out that Heck --- not that H-E-double-hockey-sticks place --- is where the bad kids go "to be rehabilitated and punished --- mostly punished" until they turn 18 and can be properly judged.

Milton can understand why bad girl Marlo is in Heck, but how did he end up there as well? It turns out that, since his one act of petty larceny had also been his last act on "the surface," he had not had a chance to redeem himself. This automatically resulted in his being sent to reform school in Heck, where the boys are forced to put on itchy yellow lederhosen, plaid caps and clogs, and girls must wear burlap muumuus, stirrup pants and Birkenstocks with white socks.

Students in Heck prepare for their "Soul Aptitude Tests" and take classes in Ethics from Richard Nixon (in room 1972), Biology from Typhoid Mary, Phys Ed from Blackbeard the Pirate, and Home Ec from an axe-wielding Lizzie Borden. The lunchroom fare consists of overcooked brussels sprouts and broccoli and mushy cauliflower served by a bald lunch lady with "a series of hairy moles and weeping boils." Vending machines dispense slabs of purple liver, and juice boxes are filled with cod liver oil.

This model of Heckishness is run by the Principal of Darkness herself, Bea "Elsa" Bubb (who wears her back hair in curlers and doesn't look a century past 2,900). Principal Bubb realizes upon meeting Milton that he is only in Heck because of a bureaucratic error, but insists on keeping him under her thumb anyway. The book follows Milton's misadventures in Heck as he launches a series of attempts to escape Principal Bubb's reptilian clutches and return to Earth.

Dale E. Basye's debut novel is wildly inventive, demonstrating a clever way with words and a painterly skill for depicting scenes. Heck is envisioned as a combination of middle school (with demons and bullies) and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. It seems unlikely that many children in the targeted age group will actually get much of the word play or the references to infamous historical figures in the book. However, there is plenty of gore and potty humor to satisfy even the most un-squeamish preteen. The book's artwork by Bob Dob and, in particular, the cover depicting Milton, Marlo and a posse of snaggle-toothed, spork-wielding demons is gorgeous.

Eight other books are planned as part of this series, one for each of the nine levels of Heck.

Reviewed by Usha Reynolds on July 22, 2008

Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go
by Dale E. Basye

  • Publication Date: July 22, 2008
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 0375840753
  • ISBN-13: 9780375840753