Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh, 288 pp, RL 4
Why is Spirit Hunters, the first book in a new series by Ellen Oh (founder of We Need Diverse Books, a "grassroots organization of children's book lovers that advocated essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.") so awesome? Where do I begin? First, Spirit Hunters is a really, truly, chillingly scary ghost story for middle grade readers. And if you don't already know this, writing a scary ghost story for middle grade readers takes A LOT of finesse and Oh delivers on finesse. Like writing mysteries for kids, writing ghost stories for kids requires removing a lot of adult elements from the story. Unfortunately, it is these adult elements that often make the story exciting. Mysteries need murders and bad people, and so do ghost stories, and, like I said, it's tricky business getting that right in a kid's book. Up to now, Mary Downing Hahn is the only author I know of who has written ghost stories that get the balance right. Jonathan Stroud and his Lockwood & Co. series are another good example but, as the main characters are teens and the stories do involve more details about adult evils, I recommend this series for older (12+) readers. That said, I let my son start reading them when he was in 5th grade because I loved them so much I wanted someone I could talk about them with someone and he seems unscathed.
So, what does Oh get right in the tricky balance of writing ghost stories for kids? While there is a super creepy backstory about a man from the 19th century trying to understand and overcome death (by poisoning many, many people) Oh keeps the details of his story to a minimum. Spirit Hunters revolves around eight-year-old Billy, a malevolent ghost from the early 1900s who wants his mother's love and is violently jealous of anyone who gets between them. When Harper Raine and her family move from New York City to Washington D.C., they have no idea about the history of the rundown, abandoned house they move into, spruced up after a year of renovations that are still ongoing. As Spirit Hunters unfolds, Harper, who is suffering memory loss after a horrible accident, learns a lot about the history of the house, Billy and herself.
Harper is a middle child. With her petite frame and her sleek hair, her older sister Kelly looks exactly like their beautiful Korean mother. Michael, at four years old, is still cute and babyish. At twelve, Harper is tall like her dad and hopelessly clumsy, with freckles splashed across her face and thick, wavy hair. From the start, she knows that there is something wrong with their new house and with her little brother, who begins acting strange after making an "imaginary" friend named Billy. But, having been through an accident and memory loss, Harper has a hard time trusting her instincts. Making friends with Dayo, a neighbor who is taking care of her grandma's dog, helps Harper to find some normalcy - at first. Dayo knows how to do research on the internet and she also knows the strange history of Harper's house. When not offering shelter to Harper at her house, Dayo is ready with holy water from her church.
As Harper begins to notice - and remember - things, she yearns more and more for a chance to see her estranged mother's mother, Grandma Lee. Harper also becomes the most beat up, injured girl character I have ever encountered in a kid's book. She "falls" down the stairs, "trips" over a metal toy firetruck and gets pummeled by Billy, who begins taking over the body of Michael, over and over. And she keeps getting up, bolstered by the return of an old, beloved friend and empowered by looking inside herself for a gift she once thought was a curse. Oh weaves many stories into this fast paced, intense ghost story. Harper's own family is fractured by her mother's beliefs, and then there are the stories of the families who lived in the house before them. The climax of Spirit Hunters, and what Harper learns about herself and her heritage, and who comes to her aid are thrilling (and touching) and set her up for more growth, learning and ghost fighting, which I can't wait to read about.
Without giving too much of the superb plot away, I would like to let gatekeepers know a bit about the ghosts and violence in Spirit Hunters. The malevolent ghosts (there are more than one in this story) have the power to physically harm humans and force them into dangerous situations. As an adult, the most upsetting storyline in this book was that of Billy and the cruelty he enacted on his little brother during his life time. As a ghost, Billy continues to harm people. However, the violence is contained to pushing, hitting and intentionally burning. There is not violence with weapons, like knives and guns. Oh contains the violence in this book within the realm of what kids can do to each other, with a little ghostly strength causing more broken bones than otherwise might be possible, at one point.
Source: Revie Copy