Phantoms Don't Drive Sports Cars (1998)
by Debbie Dadey & Marcia Thornton Jones
It's always hard to judge childrens' literature. After all, it's for kids - it's not like it can get all that heavy on the religious allegory or sexual symbolism. That sort of thing flies right over your average ten-year-old's head, and even if it didn't, not too many parents are really comfortable with their offspring reading something with those kinds of overtones so young. So when it comes to childrens' books, you really have to make your call based on entertainment value and learning opportunities.
Those familiar with the Bailey School Kids series (of which this is #38) know that the books, which are short little affairs of about seventy-five pages or so in large print, are designed to help ease children into reading chapter books and all follow basically the same theme: a group of several schoolchildren notices something odd about one of the adults around them - a teacher, a parent, a performer - and sets out to try to find out if they might be some kind of fabled villain or ghoul. Having already worked through the usual mainstays of horror (vampires, werewolves, ghosts, etc.), eventually someone turned to classic horror for more ideas, and voilà, we have the Phantom installment.
While there's nothing particularly impressive going on here - the trappings of the story are borrowed, but of course none of the undercurrents are - it is a worthwhile little stop into the most prevalent surface perceptions of the story. The kids have a very "layman's view" of opera, which is that it's boring and involves screaming people (though they change their minds, of course, after actually watching one); this is very much a modern view, obviously, since opera was not only widely accepted but an extremely popular social entertainment in previous centuries. The general premise is that, when the children go to see an opera on a school trip (as a side note, what elementary school takes its third-graders to the opera? I wanted to go to that one!), they see a tall, extremely thin violinist who always keeps one side of his face hidden and who seems to be in love with the lead singer, who is conveniently named Christine. A few chapters of light-hearted, simple investigation on the part of the kids ensue as they try to figure out if "Erik Gaston" (hilarious!) is really the real Phantom of the Opera.
As far as influences go, it's a pretty obvious mix of material drawn mostly from Leroux's novel (the violin, the tall, skeletal frame, the name) with a dash of Webber's stage musical thrown in (the apparent half-face deformity, though of course this is never confirmed). The opera that the children attend, as well, is The Phantom of the Opera, despite the fact that no opera actually exists with that name; while at first glance I thought they were referring to the Webber musical as an opera, which irks me (Webber has his good points, and I like his musical, but Verdi he ain't), but since this is never explicitly stated and there aren't even really any hints in that direction, it could just as easily be some fictional opera version of the story. The opera itself doesn't figure strongly in the book, which is more about trying to explore those aspects of the story a child would understand.
The childrens' understanding of the plot basically boils down to this: there is a Phantom in the opera house and he plays tricks on the people in it, but he falls in love with the pretty singer and is very jealous of anyone else paying attention to her, until he kidnaps her, which was bad, and then she runs away forever and he's sad. Like I said, not much depth here, but an accurate portrait of what a child would probably get from the story. The book basically fixes upon two morals for children to take away. The first is that one should never be rude at a performance, which is illustrated by several peoples' protests when the children disrupt the performances and by the mysterious misfortunes that befall the most disruptive boy when Erik doesn't appreciate his antics. The second is the most obvious of the usual morals plucked from the Phantom story, which is that one should always look beneath appearances and treat people according to their inner worth, not their outer characteristics, which is illustrated by the childrens' sympathy for Erik and his doomed infatuation with the singer. Not even touching on the deeper social issues of the original piece, of course, but those aren't bad morals for a kid to absorb.
In the end, it's pretty much just a snapshot of the story, doing nothing more complicated than someone with cursory - or even no - knowledge of the original novel might be able to come up with. But for a ten-year-old's introduction to the story, there's nothing wrong with that. I'd love to see a kids' version someday that introduces some of those harder concepts, because I do think children can think more critically and understand more complicated ideas than they're given credit for, but there's nothing here for me really to complain about.