I have lots of fond memories of reading middle-grade horror books as a kid. There’s just something so fun about those stories. These authors get to play around with scary ideas but can’t go too far with them. It’s like sitting around a campfire and hearing a scary story – it’s not necessarily scary, but it’s kind of creepy and it stays with you for a while after you’ve read it. The best children’s horror books are like that – Coraline, Goosebumps, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, etc. It’s with this context that I approached They Threw Us Away. I am a fan of Daniel Kraus’s work; he’s written some of my favorite books over the last few years and I was very excited to see what he’d do with a story aimed at a younger audience. In some ways, he did exactly what I expected him to do, delivering a story that mixes scarier elements with more adventure-filled ones. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of the book and I think it’s gonna be a big hit with its target audience. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)
(NOTE: There may be minor spoilers for They Threw Us Away. You have been warned. Additionally, I was given an ARC by the publisher in exchange for a fair review.)
They Threw Us Away (written by Daniel Kraus, illustrated by Rovina Cai)
Buddy wakes up in the middle of a garbage dump, filled with a certain awareness: he’s a teddy bear; he spent time at a Store waiting for his future to begin; and he is meant for the loving arms of a child. Now he knows one more thing: Something has gone terribly wrong.
Soon he finds other discarded teddies―Horace, Sugar, Sunny, and Reginald. Though they aren’t sure how their luck soured, they all agree that they need to get back to the Store if they’re ever to fulfill their destinies. So, they embark on a perilous trek across the dump and into the outer world. With ravenous rats, screeching gulls, and a menacing world in front of them, the teddies will need to overcome insurmountable challenges to find their way home.
While I compared They Threw Us Away with books like Coraline and the Goosebumps series, I think it’s important to state outright that it’s not a horror novel – at least, not really. That’s not to say, though, that it’s not creepy. From page one, there’s a darkness that lingers at the edge of the story and that darkness never departs – instead, only getting more and more prevalent. The novel opens in a junkyard with Buddy, Sonny, Horace, Sugar, and Reginald each awakening inside of their respective boxes and learning they’ve been thrown away for some mysterious reason. And almost immediately, they are in danger. At first, from the vultures and other birds of prey in the junkyard and, later, from the dangers of the world and whoever is responsible for their predicament. The scares are not as overt as they are in Kraus’ adult work but they’re there. From the instant terror of teddies running for their lives from vultures, to the more existential horror the teddies face as they make their way through the world and figure out their situation, to some fairly startling visual descriptions, there’s a lot for terror-seeking youth to take pleasure in.
But it’s not all darkness and terror; the bulk of the novel reads as more of an adventure book in the vein of Toy Story. Most of the narrative is spent following the teddies as they try to survive and find their way to the children they hope will love them – thereby achieving a kind of peace known as the Forever Sleep. It’s a pretty solid idea for a story and one that had me instantly hooked – especially with the intriguing character work Kraus delivers. The novel is primarily told from Buddy’s point of view – except for three chapters that hint at Kraus’ grander backstory for the teddy bears of his Teddies Saga. And, as a result, Buddy gets the bulk of the character development. His arc is nothing that hasn’t been seen in tons of other novels, one in which he must learn how to be a better friend and leader, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Buddy is a great surrogate character for the audience; at the start of the story, he is nearly as lost as the audience is, meaning we got to learn what’s going on alongside him. It’s a tried-and-true formula for a reason and it’s one that works well here.
This is true for everything about the novel, though. It all works very well. While Buddy is the most developed of the teddies, the other four are still well-defined. As is the world of the novel, which feels both mysterious and lived in. It’s an enticing setting for a trilogy of novels and it feels like Kraus is just getting started with this world and the characters that live in it. That’s not to say They Threw Us Away doesn’t tell a whole story, though. Its main narrative certainly reaches a conclusion but that conclusion includes many unanswered questions and one heck of a cliffhanger that sets the sequel up to move even deeper into the mysteries of this world. Someone, or something, is behind all that’s happened to the teddies and I have a feeling the identity of who, or what, that is will be an exciting one to learn.
At the end of the day, I loved They Threw Us Away. It’s an exciting adventure that’s dripping with intrigue, mystery, and lovable characters. There’s a darkness at the edge of the story that will prove appealing for older viewers, but there’s something that will appeal to all ages about these teddy bears seeking the love they feel has been denied to them. It’s reminiscent of Toy Story, Goosebumps, and Lord of the Flies, and it’s a really fun read. I don’t think it’s too dark or scary for younger readers; I read much scarier fare in middle school. But, I suppose, if you’re not careful, the cover art and some of Rovina Cai’s (gorgeous) illustrations might lead you to think this is a book for very young kids. It’s not; it’s definitely a book aimed at the upper-elementary-to-middle-school crowd. But it’s a book that should please that crowd immensely. However, that’s not to say that older readers won’t find plenty to enjoy here. It’s a book for all ages and many of those older readers will find themselves returned to their childhoods as they think of their own teddy bears while reading of Buddy and his friends’ exploits. It’s a great novel and well worth a read.
4.5 out of 5 wands.