Daniel Kraus’ new middle-grade horror series The Teddies Saga kicks off with They Threw Us Away, a novel which sounds saccharine in concept but is ultimately darker and more existential than I could have hoped for. The book is about Buddy, a sapient teddy bear who awakens to find that he, along with a colorful band of fellow bears, has been ejected from the safety of the toy store they called home. The book borrows from a combination of titles like Watership Down, Toy Story, The Velveteen Rabbit, and Lord of the Flies, making great use of living toys as a juxtaposition to its thematically darker content.

The first two lines of They Threw Us Away are enough to establish the tone of the entire novel: “Buddy woke up. Nothing was right, or as hoped, or as promised.” The rest of the first chapter is Buddy realizing that he’s no longer in the safety of his box and that he’s ill-equipped for the outside world, unable even to remove his paws from his eyes for fear of what awaits him. The teddy bear is in an existential crisis in the first chapter, which aside from being one of the strangest things I’ve ever written, is a good barometer for how much you’ll enjoy this book.

If meditations on purpose, personal nature, belonging, and self-awareness through the eyes of plush toys don’t sound like your cup of tea then there’s not much I can say to sway you, which is a shame because I absolutely loved this book. This is like Toy Story 3 if the writers had the gall to torch Rex and Mr. Potato Head in the incinerator scene. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a children’s novel, but Kraus pulls a lot fewer punches than you would expect and writes more than one scene in which, were these characters human, he’d be earning the written equivalent of an R-rating.

It’s even more impressive that Kraus manages to cram more genuinely emotional scenes into this middle-grade novel than you’d often find in intentionally pathos-driven adult horror writing.  Sometimes these payoffs come in the form of large set pieces addressing self-sacrifice, the burden of leadership, and a myriad of other themes addressed. More often than not the poignancy of the novel is delivered through subtler pieces of world-building which may be less effecting for the target audience than for adult readers. I’m thinking specifically about scenes like those towards the end where the bears can hear a little girl’s voice lose some of its enthusiasm as she hears her parents argue, or those towards the beginning where a jaded old teddy remembers what it was like to hope for happiness before the weight of reality set in. Those who are particularly empathetic or prone to existential musing will find They Threw Us Away to be a moving read.

There is a minor trade-off that goes along with that: it may be difficult for this book to find its ideal audience. While written for 4th to 6th graders and easily accessible to that reading level, I’m not sure that age group will grasp some of the concepts here as fully as intended, especially where the creation myth subplot is concerned. For some children the book may even be a tad bit too much, as the combination of growing hopelessness and imagery which often features teddy dismemberment might overwhelm more sensitive readers. That being said, I’m not personally experienced with kids and wouldn’t presume to know what will and won’t work for them– I’m afraid you’ll have to come to your own conclusion on that. Personally, I thought They Threw Us Away was nearly perfect and would recommend it without reservation to anyone save for the most hard-hearted of readers.

Rating

9 out of 10 Popped Stitches