Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller (9781419727245)
This novel by an Australian author is enticingly Gothic and ghost-filled. Elizabeth and her father move back to his childhood home, Witheringe House. With them comes Zenobia, Elizabeth’s not-so-imaginary friend whom only she can see. Zenobia loves Witheringe House since she hates sunshine, enjoys dust, and wants to find a “Spirit Presence” in the home. The two girls spend time trying to detect the spirit and even hold seances with a Ouija board. But no one replies. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Zenobia begin to explore their new home from the weed-choked garden to the overgrown hedge maze and even the forbidden East Wing. It is there that Elizabeth feels a presence, but Zenobia won’t listen to her. What if there really is a ghost in Witheringe House?
Miller has crafted a Gothic ghost story just right for elementary school children who enjoy a good shiver. The use of Zenobia, who is downright ghost-like herself, is an interesting foil for Elizabeth and adds a creepy yet friendly dimension to the book. Elizabeth tends to be more timid and would likely not have explored the house without Zenobia’s prodding. Still, Elizabeth tends to stick with a mystery and follow through, while Zenobia is forever abandoning projects and moving on to the next idea. Elizabeth is brave though scared, while Zenobia just doesn’t feel fear.
The setting of Witheringe House is well drawn and eerie. The house itself becomes almost a character in the novel, the strange wallpaper, the suddenly-appearing housekeeper, the library filled with odd books. There is a melancholy that is echoed in Elizabeth’s loneliness and a strong sense of grief and loss that pervades the novel.
A delightfully creepy Gothic read for elementary students. Get this in the hands of those who enjoyed The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier. Appropriate for ages 8-11.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Netgalley and Amulet Books.
Creepy Pair of Underwear by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown (9781442402980)
Jasper returns for a second gently-scary story. In this picture book, Jasper needs some new underwear. He decides to get one pair of green creepy underwear, because he is big enough for them. When he wears them to bed, he finds out that they glow with a green light. Jasper quickly changes to plain white underwear, hiding the creepy underwear in the bottom of the hamper. Waking up the next morning, he realizes that he has the creepy underwear on! Jasper tries all sorts of things to get rid of the underwear, from mailing it to China to cutting it into bits, but the underwear keeps on coming back. What is a bunny to do? This picture book is a delightful mix of funny and scary with echoes of classic monster movies. Exactly the right pick for Halloween reading. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Review copy provided by Simon & Schuster.)
The Pomegranate Witch by Denise Doyen, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler (9781452145891)
Deftly written in rhyme, this picture book features a mouthwatering pomegranate tree that is watched over by a witch. Still, the children of the town desperately want a pomegranate from the tree and are willing to go to war with the witch to get one. The children tried again and again, but the witch stopped them with water cannons and rolling walnuts. In the end though, the children got one delectable pomegranate to split among themselves. The next day, the tree was picked bare and the war was over. It was time for Halloween where a Kindly Lady gladly shared out pomegranates from her home. A lady that looks a lot like the glimpses readers get of the witch.
Doyen’s writing is spooky and rich. This is not a picture book for preschoolers, since the writing demands a longer attention span. Elementary classes would enjoy it or it could be added to a read aloud for older children on Halloween. Perhaps with pomegranate seeds to try. Appropriate for ages 5-7. (Review copy provided by Chronicle Books.)
The Scariest Book Ever by Bob Shea (9781484730461)
A spooky ghost lives by a frightening dark forest in this picture book. The ghost is the one who is scared, asking the reader to keep on checking on what is happening in the forest. But the forest isn’t nearly as scary as the ghost expects, which adds a zingy humor to this story. The tone of the book is deftly handled, walking a line between shivery ghost story and Halloween party for friends. It’s a book that will invite children to be just as scared as they might like, but also enjoy doughnuts and some costumes too. The art is lovely and graphic, filled with zaps of bright color emphasized by white and black. A great read aloud for slightly older children. Appropriate for ages 5-8. (Reviewed from library copy.)
Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh (9780062430083, Amazon)
Harper and her family have moved to Washington DC after she was injured during her stay at a hospital. Harper has no memory of how her injuries happened, but they may be the key to understanding the family’s new house. Harper’s little brother has been acting strangely since they moved in, speaking to an imaginary friend and then becoming almost another person. As Harper makes a new friend in the neighborhood, the two of them start researching what happened in the house in the past and discovering that the threatening presence that Harper feels in the house may be a ghost! In fact, Harper may be one of the special people who can sense ghosts in the world, but she has to figure out how to do so safely and who to trust with her secret.
Oh is the founder of We Need Diverse Books. She has crafted here a middle grade novel that has Korean-American main characters and uses their culture skillfully as an important part of the story and the solution to their haunting issues. She has also created a book that is pure scary fun. This is not a serious book about diversity and modern society, but instead a romp of delightful scares that make the book real fun to read.
The lightness of the book will have young readers loving it. Oh allows the young protagonist and her siblings and friends to be the real heroes of the book, even as the dangers they face grow in size. The pace of the book is key to its success as well, as Oh allows it to pick up pace towards the ending, controlling it just enough but also allowing it to get wild and zany.
A great pick for fans of Ghostbusters or scary stories, I look forward to more adventures with these characters. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.
Thornhill by Pam Smy (9781626726543, Amazon)
Released August 29, 2017.
A grand Gothic graphic novel, this book is surprising and delightfully dark. The story is told in two parallel stories, one in images and one in text. Both stories take place in the same neighborhood and revolve around Thornhill, a home for orphans. Mary’s story is told in text and is set in 1982 where she is one of the last children to leave Thornhill. As the other girls leave, Mary is left with a girl who has been bullying her for some time and the story builds to a terrible climax. The illustrated story is that of Ella in 2016 who has just moved to town and doesn’t have any friends yet. She can see Thornhill, now disused and old, from her house. When she glimpses a girl there, she decides to figure out the story of Thornhill and the girl.
This is the sort of story, you curl up with and read as fast as possible. Happily, Smy’s writing and illustrations make it almost impossible to leave this book behind for even a moment. The illustrations linger with the reader, haunting in their black and white details. The text invite readers into the past, showing them what being an orphan in was like before rules were put in place to protect children. There is a brilliance to not setting the history piece in the 1800’s, but allowing shocking situations of a more modern time to surface.
The art pieces in the book allow the reader to piece together that the girl being described in the text is not the one in the images quickly. The images are done only in black and white, filled often with deep shadows and lit by bright light at other times. They are dynamic and interesting, telling their own wordless story of Ella and her own losses.
Get this into the hands of children who enjoy ghost stories, because this one will haunt readers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Roaring Brook Press.
Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier (InfoSoup)
Released September 13, 2016.
Catrina is moving with her family to Bahía de la Luna in northern California. They are moving because her little sister has cystic fibrosis and the cool and salty air from the sea will be good for her. The girls explore their new town and hear from a boy they meet that the town is full of ghosts. Cat starts to feel ghosts in the breezes and air around them, feeling scared of meeting one. Her little sister Maya though is drawn to them, knowing that she has a health issue that will eventually lead to death. Cat is terrified at Maya being drawn too closely to the ghosts, particularly after she sees one and realizes that they are real. Cat has to balance her own fears with her sister’s need for answers.
Whenever a new Telgemeier book is announced, I am thrilled. I know that she only puts out high quality work with huge child-appeal. In this graphic novel, we have her signature welcoming graphic style that captures emotions with ease and tells a brisk story filled with the wonder of ghosts. It’s full of so much appeal for its target audience that this one will never sit on the shelf for long!
As always, Telgemeier is aware of having diversity in her book. Here the girls are Hispanic but don’t know a lot about their heritage. This offers a way for readers to learn along side them about the Day of the Dead and the sugar skulls. The pace stays always fast and fun though, even as learning happens along the way.
A funny, touching and fabulous graphic novel for kids. A must buy for every public library. Appropriate for ages 7-11.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
The Haunting of Falcon House by Eugene Yelchin (InfoSoup)
Twelve-year-old Prince Lev Lvov moves in with his aunt at Falcon House. It is a house that he will inherit as he is heir to the Lvov estate. Lev wants to be just like his grandfather, a general in the Russian army, stern and strong. Things are strange though at Falcon House where he finds wonders like an elevator in the home but also rooms that have not been touched in years. As he enters the home, Lev sees another young boy there, playing on the banister. Lev is sent to sleep in his grandfather’s old study where he can’t sleep and finds himself drawing and drawing with much more skill than he ever had before. In fact, he finds it nearly impossible to put the pen down. Slowly Lev starts to learn the secrets of his family and realize that some of the family secrets are more terrifying than ghosts.
Yelchin won a Newbery Honor for Breaking Stalin’s Nose. Here he very successfully merges historical Russia with a dark ghost story. Based on the premise of having found old notes and drawings from Lvov, the book is immediately mysterious and filled with wonder. There is the amazing setting of the huge mansion, filled with things like death masks and a basement of mothballed clothes. There are the servants who manage to work for his aunt despite her disdain and harshness. There is the ghost, who tells his own story but ever so slowly. They all create a world of darkness and beguilement.
Then the book turns and changes, becoming something deeper and more filled with emotion. It looks beyond the cranky aunt and into why she acts the way she does. It examines the death of a boy and eventually becomes about who is responsible for it and why. It looks at servants and royals, at status and power. It figures out what it takes to become someone willing to wield that power too.
Entirely gorgeous, haunting and deep, this novel is chillingly dark and wonderfully dangerous. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Christian Robinson
Released August 25, 2015.
Leo has lived for a long time alone in his house. Most people can’t see Leo, because he’s a ghost, but if you are reading this book you are one of the special people who can see Leo. When a new family moves into the house, Leo tries to be welcoming by bringing them tea, but the family is frightened of the floating tray. After hearing how much they dislike him because he’s a ghost, Leo leaves his house and roams the city. He is invisible to everyone until he meets Jane, a little girl with a lot of imaginary friends. She thinks that Leo is just another of them and since Leo was so hated because he was a ghost, he doesn’t correct her. The two of them have a grand time playing together and she even gives him a sheet and pillow to sleep by his side. Leo is so happy that he can’t sleep. So he heads downstairs and that’s where he meets the robber who has entered Jane’s house. But what is an invisible ghost to do to stop a robber?
Barnett immediately invites readers into his world by allowing them to suddenly “see” Leo with the first page turn. It creates a real connection with the story and makes Leo all the more tangible to the reader. Barnett excels at creating a simple story but one that has strong implications to real life running throughout. This is a delight of a light ghost story, but it is also about acceptance, honesty and embracing who you really are.
Robinson’s illustrations are light hearted. Her art is done with acrylics and construction paper. Leo himself is see-through and rendered in what looks like crayon, making him very childlike and welcoming. While Leo is pale or completely transparent, the others are all rendered in deep blue construction paper except for the pale-skinned thief.
A book about acceptance and the power of a strong imagination, this picture book will be a welcome addition to Halloween story times. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.
The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter
Set in Toronto in the sixties, this book is about two lonely girls living in homes that attach to one another. Polly has a huge family with foster siblings too. She feels ignored by all of them, though she can’t get away from her twin brothers and their noise. That’s how she finds her way into the attic as a safe place away from the bustle of her family. Polly has always wanted to meet a ghost, which is why she thinks that Rose is a ghost the first time she hears her singing in her neighboring attic. But Rose turns out to be a real girl, who just happens to look very ghostlike too. Rose has always been able to see ghosts, and she hates it since they never leave her alone. Rose spends a lot of her days alone, no one at school talks to her, her parents are very busy business people, and the housekeeper ignores her. So the two girls quickly form a close friendship, made even closer by the frightening ghost that looks just like Rose and who threatens Polly’s life. Can the two girls figure out who this ghost is and what she wants?
I seem to be on a roll with Canadian children’s book authors lately, and this is another wonderful Canadian read. Cotter creates a mystery inside a ghost story that twists and turns delightfully along the way. Readers will think they have it all figured out and then the story will change. Yet somehow Cotter makes it all work and in the end the entire novel makes great sense, enough that readers will want to start again to see the clues they may have missed.
The writing here is exceptional. Cotter writes with a confident voice, one that allows each of these girls to be entire unique. The two of them are quite different from one another, each clearly resulting from their very divergent upbringings. The friendship also reads as real with small arguments happening regularly and the two girls having to repair these small issues. Through the entire book there is a wonderful ghostly presence, a feeling of being in a real place but one unseen by others. It’s a place that is a delight to visit.
Perfect for reading under the covers with a flashlight, this strong ghost story is both entertaining and riveting. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Graveyard Book Graphic Novel, Volume 1 by Neil Gaiman, adapted by P. Craig Russell
The first volume in a two volume graphic version of the award-winning novel by Neil Gaiman, this book celebrates the original story as well as several top graphic artists, who each take a chapter in the tale. True to the written story, this graphic version has a wonderful creepy vibe and does not shy away from the horror elements. The story is brought vividly to life by this new format and also brings it to new readers who may not have read the written work.
Thanks to the signature illustration style of each of the artists, the book takes different views of the graveyard, the characters and the story. With each change in artist, there is a sense of refreshment and wonder anew. At the same time, the illustrators adhere to certain elements, so that Bod looks like the same character throughout the book as do other main characters. The various ghosts glow on the page, Silas is a gaunt dark figure who commands attention, and Bod himself is a luminous child that is the center of the story both visually and thematically.
Beautifully and powerfully illustrated, this new version of the book is a masterpiece. Readers will wait eagerly for Volume Two. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.