Small Spaces by Katherine Arden (9780525515029)
This shivery novel for middle-grade readers will give just the right amount of creepiness for kids reading Goosebumps. Ollie’s mother died in an accident last year, and Ollie found solace in her books, withdrawing from the kids who were her friends and not talking in class. Her father continues to create a warm home for her filled with fresh-baked bread and other treats. When Ollie meets a strange woman about to throw a book into the lake, Ollie rescues the book and runs away. She reads the book, learning about the “smiling man” and the deal that a local man made with him. When she heads out on a field trip with her class, Ollie is surprised to find herself on the farm in the book that has graves for the people in the story. On their way back home, the school bus breaks down and Ollie escapes with two other students from the clutches of the scarecrows and the smiling man himself. Can they avoid capture and find a way back home before nightfall?
There is so much to love about this book. It is so readable for kids, a story that is well-paced and actually frightening, but at just the right level for young readers. The scarecrows are particularly effective as they pivot to watch the children go by and come to life at night. The ghosts are eerie as is the hungry gray bus driver. Young readers will also appreciate Ollie’s growing connection to her mother through her mother’s broken watch, something that tells her what to do and by when. It’s a clever addition to the story, offering a sign of hope and a way out of grief.
Throughout the book, there are characters who will surprise readers by going directly against stereotype. First, there are Ollie’s parents with her domestic father and adventurous mother. Then the two children who accompany Ollie through her adventure are a jock who reads and quotes literature at just the right time and a girl who looks tiny and frail but can climb almost anything and is actually brave and strong. These unexpected little touches add up to a team that is unbeatable as they face real demons.
Written with rich prose that is a delight to read, this eerie tale will be enjoyed by any young reader looking for some spine tingles. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.
The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson (9781338209969)
Marinka never asked to be a Yaga, but since she is the granddaughter of a Baba Yaga, she has been learning to speak with the dead and guide them through the Gate and into the stars. All Marinka really wants is to make a real human friend and do things that other twelve-year-olds do. Making friends is nearly impossible though when you live in a house with chicken legs that can move you all over the world overnight. So when Marinka gets another chance to make friends with someone, she takes it, even if it breaks all of the rules that she has been taught. As her decision changes her entire life, Marinka is left to figure out who she really is and what she wants to be.
Anderson has a clear love of Russian folktales, taking a beautiful view of Baba Yaga and giving her a larger community, more chicken-footed houses and a longing for family. The folktales at the center of the book continue to reverberate throughout the story, offering Marinka distinct choices. Marinka makes her own decisions though, ones that readers will not agree with though they might understand. As her situation grows direr, Marinka becomes almost unlikeable, and yet Anderson is able to bring us back to loving her by the end.
Anderson surrounds Marinka with a beautiful and rich world. There is her own Baba Yaga, filling the house with good cooking, lots of love and ghosts every evening. Then there is Jack, Marinka’s pet jackdaw, who sits on her shoulder and puts pieces of food in people’s ears and socks. A baby lamb soon joins them as well. Yet by far, the most compelling member of Marinka’s home is the house itself. Filled with personality and opinions, the house is intelligent and ever-changing.
A dynamic retelling of the Baby Yaga folktale, this picture book offers a big world of magic and ghosts to explore. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.
Sir Simon: Super Scarer by Cale Atkinson (9781101919095)
Simon is a ghost who has haunted a bunch of different places like a forest and a boat. Now he has his first assignment to haunt a house. As a ghost, he has chores that he has to take care of, including moving things around, creaking the stairs and flushing the toilets. After he does that, he has time for his own hobbies. Everything was going well until a child moved in, a child who could immediately see Simon and wanted to talk. Simon decides to have the boy do his ghost chores for him, but things don’t work out quite as planned.
Atkinson tells this story in Simon the ghost’s voice which creates a great tone throughout. The book is filled with humor, from Simon’s previous jobs in haunting to his list of the easiest people to scare to the boy learning to haunt a house. The art adds to that appeal with funny touches like using a flowered sheet to be a ghost. It is done in a style that has a vintage feel and a modern edge.
A great ghost story when you are looking for giggles rather than gasps. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
Otherwood by Pete Hautman (9780763690717)
After Grandpa Zach died in the storm, pages of his book strewn around him, Stuey and his mother packed his writing up and put it all away. Grandpa Zach had told Stuey that ghosts walk on the golf course that has now become an overgrown wood. It was where Stuey’s great grandfather disappeared along with the district attorney who was prosecuting him. The two were never seen again. Now when Stuey and his best friend Elly Rose go into the deadfall of trees that seems to form a sort of castle or ship in the woods, they hear voices and music. Stuey has even seen a figure like his grandfather appear. When Elly Rose disappears one day right before Stuey’s eyes, no one believes him. But Elly Rose is gone though Stuey can occasionally still make contact with her. It seems she has entered a different reality where Stuey is the one who vanished. In this splintered new world, how can the two of them restore their own reality?
Hautman beautifully combines a mystery with a ghost story with quantum physics in this ode to a woods. The woods itself, the overgrown golf course, is as much a character here as the two children. It is a woods from all of our childhoods, one that seems far larger than it actually is, one that invites you in, scares you a bit, and releases you back into reality. Hautman cleverly uses the woods as the way that people vanish, that hatred is fought and that people take a stand.
Stuey and Elly Rose are unlikely friends which makes the book all the better. Stuey has suffered great loss in his life with only his mother left. He is surrounded by his grandfather’s home and his grandfather’s secrets. Elly Rose is imaginative, playful and a bit bossy, deciding what games they will play together. Still, they are fast friends even as their reality splits apart around them.
Smart and sophisticated, this middle grade novel is a dynamic mix of fantasy and science. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.
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.