Witherwood Reform School, Book 1

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Witherwood Reform School, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Creepy school holds kids captive in dark, funny fantasy.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Young readers' vocabulary may improve thanks to characters who throw around such words as "fortuitous."

Positive Messages

Family and sibling bonds play a strong role, as do problem-solving skills and determination.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Tobias and Charlotte may be youthful troublemakers, but the bond between them is strong; their different talents, including Tobias' super-strong sense of smell and Charlotte's mysterious ears, serve them well in their struggles. Adults here are mostly well-meaning but wrongheaded (such as the kids' father) or just plain evil.


Fans of creepy tales will take all this in stride, but the entire premise of being dumped at a scary place in the dark of night by your own father will be too much for some readers, as will the story-triggering incident in which the kids send live tadpoles to a gruesome death in the food of their awful governess. The school itself is guarded by ravenous monsters, and its headmaster uses mind control on kids to keep them in line. Kids attack and hit one another, but it's mostly a misunderstanding, amid the dark rooms, scary tunnels, and other frightening locales. Tobias and Charlotte discover that the only way to get each other out of the mind-control spell is to cause severe pain, such as smashing your sibling's fingers or stomping on their toes.


Minor bathroom, fart- and butt-themed humor.


References to books and movies, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A character constantly plays with a Rubik's Cube. During a parade, a teacher throws Life Savers to students.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that there's plenty of cartoonish creepiness in Obert Skye's latest series start, and sensitive readers may be more appalled than entertained by this variation on the Hansel and Gretel theme. The 11- and 12-year-old sibling protagonists get dumped at the gates of a spooky house in the dead of night by their own father, after the kids send live tadpoles to an awful doom by putting them in their horrid governess's food. Monsters, locked rooms, dark hallways, dramatic reversals, and zombie-like characters abound, and there's an evil headmaster who keeps everyone in line with mind control. There's some butt-, fart-, and bathroom-themed humor and a non-ending that sets up future adventures.

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What's the story?

Ever since their mother died, 12-year-old Tobias and 11-year-old Charlotte Eggers have been stuck with one horrible governess after another rather than being cared for by their father, who isn't coping too well. When a dire prank on the governess takes a worse turn, their dad's had it -- and he dumps them in the middle of the rainy night at the gates of WITHERWOOD REFORM SCHOOL. He doesn't really mean to leave them there for long, but his plans go awry, and soon the terrified but resourceful kids are imprisoned by toothy creatures and creepy adults in this strange academy -- not for long, if they can help it.

Is it any good?

Kids who have a hard time seeing the funny side of emotionally harrowing situations, from scary monsters to mourning and parental abandonment, might want to pass on this book. But readers steeped in Neil Gaiman and Lemony Snicket will find Witherwood Reform School a fast, entertaining read. Some will gripe that very little is resolved at the end of this volume, which is largely a setup for future installments. Keith Thompson's appealing illustrations bring the characters and their predicaments to life.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about stories wherein parents abandon their kids to awful fates. Which others do you know? Why do you think some people love these stories and others don't want to hear them?

  • The kids and their father are struggling to cope with the death of the kids' mom as the story opens. Do you know any kids who are dealing with the loss of a parent? How does it change them and their lives?

  • Why do you think so many scary stories take place in schools? Make up a creepy tale about your own school.

Book details

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For kids who love adventures and monster tales

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