Many of Elena Ferrante’s devoted fans first fell in love with her writing in the early chapters of My Brilliant Friend, the first of her four Neapolitan novels. That book introduces the protagonist and her companion as 6-year-olds who have already seen too much of how hard life can be in their rough Naples neighborhood, dealing with violence and discouragement but still clinging to the hope of something better.
So it’s fitting that the mysterious best-selling author would use her keen understanding of the hazards of youth to write a decidedly dark children’s book. Ferrante first published The Beach at Night in Italy in 2007, before the success of the Neapolitan novels. Now the 38-page story is getting an English edition by her highly regarded American translator, Ann Goldstein, to be published in the U.S. in December–just in time for holiday shopping for the most precocious and worldly young literati in your lives.
Pollyanna this book is not: the story may be intended for 6-to-10-year-olds, but it comes with Ferrante’s signature emotional turmoil. The Beach at Night is a spin-off from her third novel, The Lost Daughter, in which a woman becomes fascinated by a little girl and her doll. This time the story is told from the doll’s perspective. In a partial translation obtained by TIME, the doll, Celina, explains that Mati, the little girl she belongs to, is distracted by her father and new kitten during a day at the beach.
Mati’s brother, who Celina says considers her “lower than a turd,” partly buries the doll in the sand. Reminiscing about happier times, Celina recalls the last game she played with Mati: “She made me jump, she made me run, she made me get scared, she made me talk and shout, she made me laugh and even cry.” (To those who’ve read the Neapolitan novels, this may sound like the friendship of Lila and Elena in brief.) Now Celina is alone and bored–and when Mati’s severe distraction leads her to abandon her old friend on the beach when she leaves, the doll is soon in danger.
The story takes a spooky turn as the “Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset” arrives and starts raking the sand, singing a creepy song that could trouble even the sturdiest of children:
Open your maw
Sh-t for your craw
Drink up the pee
Drink it for me.
Clearly, this is not your typical children’s book–and the 12 chilling illustrations by Mara Cerri only add to the feeling of uneasiness. But as Celina faces a series of nocturnal perils, the sense of dread and abandonment so pervasive in Ferrante’s mature works comes to seem just as fitting in the world of children. After all, you’re never too young for nightmares.
This appears in the April 04, 2016 issue of TIME.