Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist – OPHIE’S GHOSTS by Justina Ireland
Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Emily Joan Smith
12-year-old Ophelia Harrison’s father wakes her in the middle of the night, instructing her to grab her mother and go hide in the woods. They are in 1920s rural Georgia, where a lynch mob is headed toward their home—but, Ophie learns the next morning, her father had already been murdered by the time he showed up to warn Ophie.
Ophie and her mother flee to the North, where they move in with distant relatives in Pittsburg, where Ophie begins to see ghosts everywhere. She and her mother begin work as domestics at Daffodil Manor, a sprawling mansion home to the awful Mrs. Caruthers, her son Richard, and a large cast of ghosts.
Ophie’s Aunt Rose quickly surmises that Ophie shares the family trait of being able to communicate with the dead. She begins to instruct her, warning her that ghosts are selfish shells of the people they once were. She warns Ophie never to trust ghosts…but Ophie feels differently. When Clara, a ghost at Daffodil Manor, seems to offer Ophie help and even friendship, Ophie decides to find out what happened so that she can put Clara to rest.
As a historical fiction ghost story with a strong element of detective mystery and a thrilling climax involving possession and murder, OPHIE’S GHOSTS holds appeal for a variety of upper middle grade readers.
Engaging vignettes at the end of some chapters break from Ophie’s perspective and shift to the perspective of various settings, such as trolley cars and the Manor. In this way, author Justina Ireland personifies settings, elevating them to the status of characters.
Perhaps Ireland’s greatest strength is the manner in which she expertly weaves in historical content that many parents and teachers shy away from discussing with children. Employing ghosts, Ireland effectively conveys the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow, and lynching, calling upon these painful truths in a way that is appropriately terrifying and nonetheless approachable for its intended young audience.
Painful truths figure prominently in this story, a theme that emerges as Ophie wants to do the right thing, but struggles with the question of when it is right to be dishonest.
Ghosts, it seemed, were like painful truths—you could ignore them, try to keep them secret, but sooner or later, they were going to come out, for better or worse.p 278
The Newbery committee has not typically favored horror stories, but perhaps this one will break that trend with its vivid settings, unflinching approach toward painful history, and universal themes.
Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Please start with positive observations first; stick to positives until at least three comments have been posted or we reach 1:00 pm EST. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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