The List of Unspeakable Fears by J. Kasper Kramer

Cover image for The List of Unspeakable Fears.

The List of Unspeakable Fears by J. Kasper Kramer (9781534480742)

The author of The Story That Cannot Be Told returns with her second book for middle-grade readers. Essie is scared of a lot of things, so many things that she keeps a list of the things that scare her like cats, electric lights, closets, darkness, and doors. Her mother has remarried after the death of Essie’s father and the two move from where they live in poverty in the Bronx to North Brother Island where Essie’s new stepfather runs a hospital for those with incurable contagious diseases. Of course, Essie is also terrified of disease, and is particularly worried when she learns that Typhoid Mary is a resident of the island. Once on the island, Essie starts to see a girl her age and have nightmares about the red door that leads to the attic, which is just like the one that she has seen in her dreams for years. Essie must follow the clues to see if her new stepfather is conducting horrible experiments on his patients and who the girl is, a process that will force Essie to face all of her fears.

This historical novel for middle-grade readers is a fascinating look at contagious diseases in the past. It is given particular weight given the Covid pandemic, adding to the tension and fears of the book. The setting of North Brother Island plays a large part in the story, giving it a gothic loneliness, foreboding mists, and a marvelous creepiness both due to its landscape and to its purpose as a quarantine hospital.

Essie is a character who changes and grows as the book progresses. At first entirely paralyzed by irrational fears, she slowly reveals the grief and reasons behind her frights. Her willingness to face a ghost along the way, plays against her fearfulness and shows exactly who she is without her shame and grief clouding her world. It’s a complex rendering of a character that is immensely satisfying as she untangles the mystery she finds herself in.

A creepy and ghost-filled read that also offers historical context of our current pandemic. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

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