Skip to main content

Wait til Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn, 184 pp, RL 4

I have long known (from personal and professional experience) that somewhere around fourth grade, readers get a serious taste for spooky stories. Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories Trilogy, the first of which was published in 1981, is perennially popular with all readers and just received a cover update by the inimitable Brett Helquist, although I do miss Stephen Gammell's original, creepy covers. Schwartz's stories aside, it seems that mostly girls become very interested in ghost stories while boys tend to prefer R.L. Stine's tame horror stories. Recent work as a substitute librarian in elementary and middle schools has reminded me of Mary Downing Hahn. While not quite as prolific as R.L. Stine, Hahn has written a handful of ghost stories (as well as mysteries and historical fiction) that have serious staying power on the shelves and are still being devoured almost 30 years after being published. Interestingly enough, ghost stories seem to be a genre that not many kid's book writers want to tackle. Wait Til Helen Comes is probably Hahn's most widely read ghost story, although she also writes historical fiction, and it's easy to see why. Wait Til Helen Comes has all the elements of a great ghost story - a sour, mean little girl, a move to a new home, an old mysterious death and a hidden grave. To these elements, Hahn layers in family stories, both present and past, and secrets that are revealed almost too late. Hahn's writing is fast paced and her characters are sometimes described in a shorthand that makes them feel a bit like stereotypes, but not every reader wants a book with a complex storyline and a large cast of detailed characters. Hahn's writing style (and subject matter) as especially suited for reluctant and struggling readers well into middle school.

Wait Til Helen Comes begins with siblings Molly and Michael learning that, not only have their summer plans been ruined, their family is moving out of Baltimore and into a renovated church out in the country, a couple of miles from the nearest small town. Molly and Michael's mother is a painter and their stepfather Dave is a potter and they hope to make great use of their new studio space. They also hope that Molly and Michael will assume babysitting duties for Heather, Dave's seven-year-old daughter. While Michael, a budding naturalist, warms to the idea of miles of countryside to explore, Molly is apprehensive, especially since Heather does everything she can to make her life miserable. Molly makes her best effort to be nice to Heather, who lost her mother in a house fire that she survived, but Heather lies to their parents and ruins every toy, game and puzzle Molly tries to engage her in. On top of it all, Molly has to share a room with Heather in their new home. Exploring their new environs, the kids discover an ancient cemetery near their house and notice that many families seem to be buried together. They meet Mr. Simmons, the caretaker, and as they are talking about the history of the graves, Heather wanders off and finds a mysteriously hidden grave at the base of an old tree. The letters H.E.H and the dates "March 7, 1879 - August 8, 1886" are inscribed below. There are no apparent family members' graves nearby either. Mr. Simmons knows nothing about the child buried there, but Heather soon does. Sneaking out of the house at night, she tidies and tends to the grave and is soon wearing an old locket with the letters H.E.H (also Heather's exact initials) on it and threatening Molly and Michael with the promise that they will be very sorry when Helen comes.

While Helen proves to be a destructive ghost, trashing Molly's, Michael's and their mother's possessions but not Heather's or Dave's, it is Heather who is the truly malevolent one. Hahn creates a backstory for Helen that parallels Heather's in many ways, including setting the fire that (mostly) unintentionally killed their mothers (and Helen's stepfather, who she was jealous of). She adds to that a level of pathos as the ghost of Helen lures lonely girls into the depths of the pond behind her house, the pond where she drowned escaping the fire, to keep her company, with Heather her next intended playmate. But, Hahn also includes a strong sense of redemption in the character of Molly who, despite Heather's increasingly horrible behavior, never stops caring about her and never stops worrying that Helen is real and really trying to hurt or even kill Heather. There is a powerful scene at the climax of the novel that finds Molly rescuing Heather from drowning a moment that seems like it will be the end of both girls but in fact results in closure and relief for both Helen and Heather.

Wait Til Helen Comes is is a fantastic ghost story that I would recommend to any young readers looking for some chills and excitement, and also to any parents of readers interested in this topic but worried about their kids reading anything too scary and disturbing. Wait Til Helen Comes is a ghost story, not a horror story. There are none of the things you would expect from movies today, no real violence beyond the trashing that Michael and Molly's rooms get, no blood, and no murder. Just a great ghost story with unhappy children - both human and ghost.

Source: Paperback Swap

Other ghost stories by Mary Downing Hahn:


Popular posts from this blog

Made by Dad: 67 Blueprints for Making Cool Stuff - Projects You Can Build For (and With) Kids! by Scott Bedford

On his personal website, Scott Bedforddescribes himself as an "Award Winning Online Creative Professional" working within the advertising and design industry. What is more interesting (and applicable here) is how hisWhat I Made website came to be. While sitting in a Starbucks with his restless young sons, trying to enjoy his latte, Bedford created something out of coffee stir sticks that ended up keeping his boys entertained, finishing his coffee in peace and sparking (re-sparking, really) his creative drive and reminding him of the "enormous joy gained from making things, even simple things, and that this joy is not the complexity or quality of the finished project but in the process of making itself. On Bedford'sWhat I Made website, he even shares Six Cool Coffee Shop Crafts for Kidsthat you can try out next time you want to enjoy your coffee and your kids are making that difficult. I've shared two below - be sure to check out the website and see the rest!


How to Choose Age Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers

How to Choose Age Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers remains the most read post on my blog since I wrote it in 2012. Because of this, I have cleaned up this post, tightened the writing and added in any pertinent information that has come about since it originally ran. When I first started in August of 2008, I was scrambling for content, finding my purpose and my voice and not always doing my best writing. How to Choose Age Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers was one of the first articles I wrote and, as a bookseller and a book reviewer, and now as an elementary school librarian where I have gone from working with kids reading well beyond their grade level to kids reading well below, this philosophy remains my organizing principle and central focus when reading and recommending books to parents and children. 

In the interest of my mission and the attention this article continues to receive, I have updated and expanded this article and included a guide to using …

POP-UP: Everything You Need to Know to Create Your Own Pop-Up Book, paper engineering by Ruth Wickings, illustrations by Frances Castle RL: All ages

POP-UP:  Everything You Need to Know to Create Your Own Pop-Up Book with paper engineering by Ruth Wickings and illustrations by Frances Castle is THE COOLEST BOOK EVER!!!  I know that I haven't dedicated much time to pop-up books here, but they have always held a special place in my heart, and the phrase "paper engineering" is a favorite of mine. Although I didn't know what it was at the time, I did go through a paper engineering phase when I was ten or so. I would sneak off to the back of the classroom during independent work periods and go to town on the construction paper and glue and make these little free-standing dioramas. A huge fan of The Muppet Show (the original), I reconstructed the all-baby orchestra from an episode, drawing and coloring each baby and his/her instrument then gluing them onto a 3D orchestra section I had crafted out of brown construction paper.  I also made a 3D version of Snidely Whiplash throwing Nell off a cliff with Dudley Do-Right wa…