When Maria inherits a strange, spider-shaped ring from her grandmother, she doesn’t realize she’s also inheriting a strange power — the power to control spiders and have them do whatever she wants. This is a pretty cool thing when it comes to fetching objects from another room…or if Maria wants to use the spiders to get back at some mean kids in her class.
But the power comes with a price. Maria has attracted the attention of the Black Widow — who is trying to collect all the spider magic for herself. The Black Widow is not going to let anything stand in her way — especially not Maria.
The story of the ring is being woven like a web — and Maria is going to have to do everything she can to not get trapped within it.
- Title: The Spider Ring
- Author: Andrew Harwell
- Cover Artist: Yaffa Jaskoll
- Publisher: Scholastic Press
- ISBN: 0545682908
- Publication Date: January 27, 2015
- For Ages: 8-12
- Category: Middle Grade
- Spooky-Scary or Spooky-Fun? ☠️ Scary.
The Spider Ring establishes an intriguing fantasy world with the Order of Anansi, a nebulous group of people who bear magical rings granting them different sets of powers depending on the type of spider emblazoned on the ring. This is no far-reaching fantasy epic, though. The story stays grounded with its focus on the relationship between Grandma Esme and Maria, and on Maria’s journey after Esme’s death as she learns to navigate her new magical world without her grandmother’s help.
Grandma Esme is the kind of kooky old lady I aspire to be one day. An eccentric woman with a mysterious past and a flare for the dramatic, Esme wears elaborate lace shawls and has spiderwebs all over her house and creeps out her entire neighborhood. She’s pretty much the long-lost member of the Addams Family. The fact that she is Maria’s favorite person in the world, and vice versa, immediately puts the reader in Maria’s corner, and we are firmly on Team Maria even (or especially?) when she does things like terrorize her school bully with her newfound spider powers.
Maria is a heroine who is a wonderful mix of relatable and admirable – she acts selfishly and impulsively sometimes, but she admits to her mistakes and she learns from them. She’s a believable kid who would do anything for her friends and family, even when that means she has to fight the Black Widow. Speaking of: I’m terrified of spiders, so my shiver-ometer is not well calibrated for a book like this, but the body horror when the Black Widow displays the full extent of her powers at the end of the book was pretty disturbing for me. Kids who aren’t huge arachnophobes will have no problems, though. Harwell’s descriptions are gross and scary enough to delight kids, but they’re not too intense for the average reader. Maria’s relationship with her spiders is actually very sweet, so some readers might even lose some of their arachnophobia while reading the book. (I didn’t, but I’m an old kook like Esme, so I’m set in my ways.)
I did have a few problems with The Spider Ring. It has a bit of a pacing issue – the climax feels slightly rushed, and there is an extended flashback in the middle that comes across as a tad clunky but provides some much-needed exposition. I wish we could have learned more about the history of the Order of Anansi and the nature of the spider rings. What Harwell does show us is tantalizing, though, and I think young readers will have lots of questions and will spin many of their own stories out of the marvelously creative foundation that Harwell has laid. And despite my frustrations, the story feels complete. As I said, this isn’t a fantasy epic; this is a tale about Maria and her family, and Harwell ends their tale with a lovely and fitting conclusion that stays true to Maria’s kind, generous nature.
My main problem, however, lies with the mysterious Order’s namesake. Anansi is an enduringly popular figure outside of the West African culture where he originated – one can’t help but be fascinated with a trickster spider god who is the king of all stories. It obviously makes sense that we don’t get a definitive backstory about the ultimate trickster in a book filled with stories passed down from generation to generation as mere whispers and notes scribbled in hidden journals. But Harwell makes no mention whatsoever of Anansi’s African provenance. At best, this feels like a missed opportunity to teach young readers about religion and mythology outside of the stories that most American kids learn in school. At worst, it feels like cultural theft and erasure, particularly since the only stories we hear about the Order of Anansi take place in the United States and Europe. Anansi has been completely whitewashed, and I think readers should be made aware of that.
With that said, I enjoyed The Spider Ring a great deal and would recommend it as a fun, spooky book that has a lot to offer readers who are looking for adventure, magic, and chills. Its themes – choosing what is right over what is easy, showing consideration for all living creatures, and appreciating the weird people in your life – are important lessons for kids and adults to learn.
As an aspiring kooky old lady, I’m particularly partial to that last one.
This is an intriguing story about family, friendship, and magic. I give this book 3.5 out of 5 coffins.