SCHOOL BUS OF HORRORS by Michael Dahl, with illustrations by Euan Cook
If you know a young reader who likes scary stories but who isn’t quite up to tackling something the length of, say, a GOOSEBUMPS book, give Michael Dahl and Euan Cook’s SCHOOL BUS OF HORRORS series a shot. Four new titles are being released at once: Night Shift, Auto Body Parts, Ooze Control, and Shocks! (2019). The series is recommended for readers in the 9-to-13-year-old-range, though I would guess that’s more due to the thematic content than complexity of language; the stories are engaging though told very simply, and seem perfectly matched for “hi-lo readers” or “reluctant readers.”
The basic premise is provided at the beginning of each book: the outwardly-innocuous School Bus of Horrors roams far and wide, through urban and rural areas, “searching for another passenger,” and whoever is unlucky enough to board it may not live to see another school day. Children do board, of course, and experience horrors which reflect their character flaws; notably, only one story had a happy ending. The individual stories are linked only by the appearances of the School Bus of Horrors, and could be taking place in any town or school district, adding to the sense of dread. (Perhaps YOU could be its next victim!)
In Night Shift, Raven and her friends Emily, Tom, and Colin missed their usual bus home after band practice. Raven’s friends blame her, since she ratted them out for making a mess in the band room, but she may have saved the day when she spots a bus waiting in the blinding wind and snow. To their dismay, there’s no driver — and when Colin bumps the gearshift, the world outside the bus takes on a drastic change. Can the group get back home, or will their constant bickering be their undoing?
In Auto Body Parts, Iris and her classmates take a decrepit, unfamiliar school bus on their way to a field trip. A lot of students are home sick, and have been for a while, leading to an opportunity for Iris to “borrow” something from another student’s desk. When the bus’s floor cracks open, Iris discovers that there might be another reason for the dwindling student population.
In Ooze Control, Franco goes home hungry because the “Carnival Day” themed lunch was too gross and messy for him. But the school bus is filthy — growing more so by the minute — and it’s not the same bus he boarded that morning. Why does the bus driver have such a creepy laugh, and where is all the gunk coming from? Suddenly Franco isn’t so hungry any more…
In Shocks!, Hari waits alone on a country road, drenched by pouring rain. A previously-blank billboard lights up whenever lightning flashes, but its seemingly-innocent ad for Skelton’s Motors changes to something much more sinister when it’s directly struck by lightning. A bus nearly hits Hari, and suddenly, he finds himself aboard it, alone. Then his deceased grandmother appears with a present for Hari. Is any of this real? What can it all mean?
The puns in the book and chapter titles (“Shifting Blame,” “More Parts,” “Oozing Control,” “Shocking,” etc.) are clear indicators of what to expect, and I’m sure kids will be tickled by them. The scares, themselves, follow the type of formula familiar to viewers of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, though toned down and made far more appropriate for the intended audience. Each book ends with a glossary, discussion topics, and a few writing prompts thoughtfully geared toward engaging the reader beyond the initial story.
Cook’s illustrations appear on nearly every page, mostly in black-and-white, with a single additional color included as accent. It’s a different color for each book, which helps to differentiate the titles while create a unifying visual theme within each story. Grease and grime and omnipresent, while character models are slightly exaggerated, with heavy emphasis on emotional expression and diversity of ethnicity and body type.
The SCHOOL BUS OF HORROR series is marketed as “4D Books,” meaning they offer an “augmented reading experience.” If one scans marked pages with the publisher’s app (or goes to the Capstone website and types a code provided in each book), a related video will begin playing. For this series, that means a “meet the author” video and promotional blurbs for other SCHOOL BUS OF HORROR books; it’s an interesting feature, but seems like it would be better implemented in conjunction with educational or activity-oriented titles.
Overall, there should be something in each of these books to entertain and lightly scare, and they seem like a great way to hook young or struggling readers. Because the SCHOOL BUS OF HORROR series is, as the name suggests, all about horror, parents/guardians should use their best judgement in determining whether these are right for their particular young reader.