Cheshire Schools’ Book Award 2023: Dread Wood by Jennifer Killick

As part of our Cheshire Schools’ Book Award 2023 celebrations, Rosie reviews shortlisted book Dread Wood by Jennifer Killick. Better watch out for those spiders…

Jennifer Killick’s Dread Wood, nominated in the Younger Age category for the Cheshire Schools’ Book Award 2023, is a terrifying middle-grade novel about a group of high school students unexpectedly trapped, alone, and in danger on school grounds during Saturday detention.

Dread Wood is a genuinely scary book that will keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end. The confusion begins with a missing pig and an attack on the teacher, who Angelo (the main character) later watches vanish into a pit under the school field, ground closing up around his desperately scrabbling hands. The ominous whistling of Mr Latchitt, the groundskeeper, builds tension as it follows the kids around school. Gradually it gets louder and more frequent as the danger increases, until they realise, trapped in the dark among smashed insect tanks, what exactly it is they’re facing, and it hits Angelo what nursery rhyme they’ve been hearing – Incy Wincy Spider.

As someone who hates regular spiders, the detailed descriptions of their hairy legs close up and the silent scuttling that leaves the characters constantly paranoid that awful amounts of eyes are watching them from the shadows are bad enough. But the spiders in Dread Wood are anything but regular, a thought Angelo voices with great hesitation after an experiment with a trapdoor spider in the science lab and with the memory of his teacher disappearing into the ground: “I have a feeling that it’s one. A really freaking big one.” Genetically modified spiders the size of dogs with their most dangerous features enhanced are the worst nightmare for anyone with arachnophobia, particularly with burrows running under the entire field from which they can pop up and grab prey – such as the chickens forced onto the field or the unlucky Mr Canton. As they piece together the impossible growth of their many-legged foes, accompanied by Angelo’s helpful (and horrifying) spider facts, another mystery unfolds that leads the kids to believe their presence is no accident.

One of the best features of the book is ‘Club Loser’, who are all incredibly relatable characters for the fact that none of them are by any means perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone is mean, or thoughtless, or selfish sometimes, and arguably this is particularly true in high school (or at least, it feels very true when you’re in high school). The Breakfast Club-esque protagonists of Dread Wood are no exceptions – they’ve shouted, they’ve stolen, they’ve sabotaged, and they keep these secrets to themselves. The characters’ backstories are gradually revealed, leading to a bout of confessions where they finally disclose how they came to be in detention on a Saturday morning. Though we are led to be sympathetic to the characters by getting to know them before their ‘crimes’, their actions aren’t excused and all of them realise what they did was wrong. Similarly to J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, they realise that all their stories centre around the same person, and have to reflect on how their actions have added up to hurt her.

Dread Wood is incredibly enjoyable, with great tension and a horrifying danger creeping in the shadows. You’ll grow to love the characters despite – and because of – their flaws, and the message of considering the effect your actions have on other people is woven well into the story without taking from the horror of Club Loser’s experiences. It makes for a fun and spooky read, and well-deserving of its nomination for the Cheshire Schools’ Book Award 2023.

Dread Wood is one of ten books shortlisted for the Cheshire Schools’ Book Award 2023. All books are nominated, read, debated and voted for by secondary students across Cheshire, Warrington, Halton and surrounding areas. The winners of this year’s award will be announced at Winsford Academy on Tuesday 23rd May 2023.

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