Ghostly Appearances in the Newbery Conversation
I don’t normally seek out books with ghosts in them, but it’s impossible to avoid them this year. I’m not talking about the books where ghosts fit right in, like the axe-wielding sailor in DARK WATERS. Instead it’s those ghosts that play key roles in stories that are otherwise mostly realistic. We’ve posted previously about AMBER AND CLAY and ALMOST THERE AND ALMOST NOT. I don’t know why there are so many ghosts, but a lot of really good books have them. Here are three more excellent examples of the different ways in which authors utilize that ghostly device to help develop plots, characters, and themes that might move the books into Newbery contention.
DEAD WEDNESDAY by Jerry Spinneli
The ghost in this book kind of sneaks up on the reader. We know we’ll be looking at death from the title and the school-wide exercise that’s supposed to heighten safety awareness from eighth-graders like Worm. But then the dead teen he’s supposed to read about actually appears and spends the day with him. It takes a while for Worm to actually interact with the ghost of Becca, and longer for him (and her) to get some sense of why she’s there. As their relationship develops, it moves from ghost-human to boy-young woman, but it’s never fully one or the other. Like when Becca tries to talk Worm into sticking with her instead of watching a fight:
“So…you’d rather go see a fight than spend time with a spectral maiden – in other words, you want to walk away from what is probably the most unique experience in the history of humanity. Did I get any of that wrong?”
He’s smart enough to know when he’s walked into an answer trap. She’s got his head looped like a funnel cake.p 95
For me, their unusual friendship is the strongest part of the book. Readers can see early on that there’s more to Worm than he gives himself credit for, and the way Becca brings out his deeper qualities is convincing. The subtle way that he connects the encouragement she give him with his confused feelings about Mean Monica is also nicely done. So is Worm’s realization that Becca needs his help as well.
The premise of the school’s “Dead Wednesday” tradition kind of fades in significance, and I wonder if it was necessary or more of a distraction. The interplay between Becca and Worm, and the way that shifts through the day and afterwards (for Worm) makes for a very engaging and thoughtful book.
OPHIE’S GHOSTS by Justina Ireland
In OPHIE’S GHOSTS, we learn about the title character’s abilities in that riveting prologue where the ghost of her father, who has just been murdered, appears to save the lives of Ophie and her mother. That part ends after the funeral, as they depart from Georgia:
She looked out the window. Standing in the front yard in his work clothes was her daddy. His hands were in his pockets, and he looked sad and wistful, and maybe a bit faded, like something had leeched most of the color from him. Ophie raised her hand to the glass, waving to him or reaching for him, she didn’t know.
But it didn’t matter, because her daddy raised one hand in return, smiled at her, and disappeared into sparkling sunlight.
I love you, Ophie. Be a good girl for your mama.
As the car pulled out of the yard and onto the road, Ophie fell back against the seat and let the tears she’d been holding back finally fall.
When she was twelve, Ophelia Harrison saw her first ghost.
And it was the last time she saw her father.p 16 [ebook version]
This sets the stage for Ophie’s experiences in 1920s Pittsburgh, as she encounters numerous ghosts, gradually figures out how to manage her ability to see them, and gets deeply involved in the mystery of Clara’s life and death. This is an excellent ghost story: readers learn how the ghostly world works along with Ophie, and there’s just the right amount of eeriness coupled with emotional impact. It’s also a successful mystery. The Ophie-Clara relationship is fascinating: Ophie wants to learn what happened to Clara, while at the same time she has to figure out if Clara is a friend or an enemy, and readers are kept equally unsure.
It shines as historical fiction as well. Part of that comes from the strong characterizations, not just of Ophie herself, but of the people she interacts with. Through the begrudgingly charitable relatives, the Caruthers family, and Ophie’s mother, we get a strong sense of the attitudes of the times, while the chapters that introduce ghosts in different places (“The Trolley Car,” “The Garden,” etc.) help to flesh out the physical environment.
I revisited OPHIE’S GHOST for this post and am impressed all over again at how skillfully written this book is. A nomination possibility for me for sure.
TOO BRIGHT TO SEE by Kyle Lukoff
Like OPHIE’S GHOST, this book opens with the death of a close relative who appears right away as a ghost, but it’s less clear to the reader exactly how real the supernatural elements are. Bug is comfortable with the ghostly presences in the house, but it becomes clear that Uncle Roderick is a more tangible being, with a specific purpose:
It never seemed important to research the different presences in my house, any more than it felt necessary to learn about the different woods that made up the doors and the roof and the kitchen table. But that was before one of them tried to get my attention.p 97-98
Bug investigates with library research and the ouija board, which is engaging, but also slyly takes the reader’s eye off of the self-exploration that Bug is going through. The slow revelation of Roderick’s message and Bug’s understanding of it works beautifully. Along with Bug, readers recall the incidents when the ghost’s actions were most powerful, and it all makes sense.
That applies beyond the supernatural parts, as well. The conversations with Moira and Bug’s confusion with getting to know Griffin also take on a different meaning once Bug figures things out. Bug’s tendency to self-narrate events in the third person works as an interesting and quirky character trait, but that too takes on a different when Bug finally decides that “it didn’t feel right” anymore (p 174).
Normally I don’t worry about giving away plot twists on Heavy Medal…we’re here for the writing, not the story. But I tried to avoid doing that with this book, because the author’s note at the end asks us to in such a thoughtful way. But also, the plot, characters, and especially “interpretation of the theme” are done in such an artful manner that I’m glad to avoid a spoiler for those who haven’t read the book yet.
Next up on my ghost-book list is R. J. Palacio’s PONY, and I’m eager to discover yet another approach to this 2021 trend. I have no idea why there are so many this year, but so far I’m enjoying and appreciating them much more than I thought I would…
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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