Ghostly Reads for October

Crisp, colorful leaves. A chill in the air. The routines of school are established. Ah, it must be almost time for Halloween. In preparation, I always like to have some creepy books on hand to share with students. Now, I am not a fan of horror movies (there’s a lot of cringing), but I do love a good ghost story so I figured it would be the perfect time to share some of the titles and authors I have enjoyed in the past.

 Most recently, I finished the book The Ghost of Graylock by Dan Poblocki. This story follows a brother and sister, Neil and Bree, who move in with their aunts after their father moves out to the west coast to follow his acting dreams and their mother has a nervous breakdown. Neil enjoys watching a show about ghost investigators so he is immediately enthralled by the local legend of Graylock Hall, an abandoned (and supposedly haunted) hospital for people with mental disorders. He enlists his new friend Wesley and Wesley’s older brother, Eric, to explore the old building with him, but he is unable to escape without his older sister insist on coming along.

The foursome begins to explore the building while looking for the ghost of Nurse Janet, an employee who was suspected of drowning three children at the institution. Soon after beginning to explore the decrepit structure, weird things happen and Neil gets injured so the kids escape into the woods and are driven back to town by a kind local man, Andy.

It’s not long after that Bree and Neil begin to have terrifying dreams and experience strange events in their aunt’s house. Did something really follow them home from Graylock? And if so, what does it want?

I made the mistake of starting this book after 10:00 one night and had to keep reading until Chapter 8 just so I could go to sleep at a place that wasn’t going to leave me in a cold sweat that night. I enjoyed the imagery that Poblocki uses to create a consistently creepy world that I was (unfortunately) able to picture myself inside. Here’s an example from when the group first enters Graylock: “Shards of glass glimmered in the dim light at the group’s feet. A slimy green stripe of mildew and moss clung to the wall, dripping down from the makeshift entry. A shadowy horizontal line, about five feet high, stretched around the room, reminding Neil of a grimy bathtub ring.” Lines like these help to show students the importance of setting and they are great for mentoring to students how to write descriptively in their own papers. This is a book that I would recommend to middle grade students looking for a ghostly mystery and children who want a book to use as a model for some spooky writing of their own.

I picked up this book due to my enjoyment (read: fear) of Poblocki’s The Nightmarys when I read it last year. There were a few moments in this story where I actually felt myself getting goosebumps because of the creepy occurrences in the book. After I book-talked this novel at the start of the school year, both of my copies disappeared off the shelves and readers are waiting eagerly for a chance to read this book. My copy of The Stone Child, also by Poblocki, has not had an opportunity to gather dust either.

Another book that my students have enjoyed and spread throughout the classroom in the past is Bad Girls Don’t Die. This is another one of those books that I told myself I wouldn’t read after a certain time of the night because otherwise I knew this story of ghostly possession would haunt my dreams. See the video trailer here.

And who can forget two tellers of ghost stories, Mary Downing Hahn and Betty Ren Wright, who have extensive catalogs of books for children. See the book covers below for some of their books that I have enjoyed in the past.

Which ghost stories do you recommend to students who are looking for a good fright? 

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A Magical Wall Transports Us to the End of September

It’s my final review during Laurel Snyder September and I am sad the journey is over; however, just like with her books, the journey stands out as being worthwhile so I can’t let the fact that it is coming to a close bring me down. Plus, she has more books on the horizon, to go with the picture books I did not review, which means I have plenty of great reading in my future!

Anyway, time for the final review. I will let these students (they are not mine) introduce the premise of Any Which Wall:  http://vimeo.com/19449558

The wall looming over that Iowa cornfield has its magic discovered accidentally by the four friends. By touching the wall and making a wish, they realize they can be transported to any place during any time period so long as that place has walls. They decide it is only fair if each of them gets a wish, and since they are different ages and share different passions, they are able to come up with a variety of adventures spanning hundreds of years, many of which are hinted at by the illustrations on the book jacket. In true Laurel Snyder fashion, however, these wishes do not turn out exactly how the wishers might expect…

   Any Which Wall reminds me (in a good way) of the fantasy books of yesteryear: kids go on adventures without any superpowers; magic has simple rules that must be followed; and the main setting is in an everyday place. The detailed illustrations by LeUyen Pham also help to convey this feeling due to the way they would easily fit in a book written in the 1950s or 60s.

    Young readers can easily jump into the adventure since the protagonists are not unlike themselves, and adults can imagine their younger selves being a part of these adventures. This is great for engagement with the book but also because children reading this book can pick out how each of the characters grew during their adventures and relate this back to their own possibilities. For example, Emma is the youngest and lacks confidence in her capability compared to that of the older children; however, if she had continued to doubt herself and given up, the kids might not have made it through their first journey.

This book contains a theme found in other novels by Miss Snyder that childhood is about exploration and making mistakes that provide experiences to learn from. Throughout their travels, the children in this novel must make quick decisions about a course of action, some of these resulting in consequences that could easily turn dire. Later, when the children want to know the ‘right’ path for solving a problem, the response they receive is, “Sometimes you just have to try a few doors, make a mistake or two.” It’s ideas like this that convey to children the need to make choices based on what they know and not to necessarily rely on others to make those choices for them.

I enjoyed the pacing of this novel and the way the narrator interacted with the story in a Lemony Snicket-esque way at times. Like Snyder’s other novels, I was satisfied in not knowing how the ending would turn out, and I was also pleased with a problem presenting itself that I thought had been resolved. Anyone who likes fantasy books in which children find magic that helps them set sail on various adventures should find plenty to love in Any Which Way.

From reading five of Laurel Snyder’s works, I can see that she is a talented writer of children’s fiction who creates characters readers young and old will find engaging. Her skills and writing style came to my mind when a character in Any Which Wall is asked about why he acts the way that he does and he responds, “I can only be what I am. And I’m happy, I suppose, because I don’t try to be anything else.” And I am happy that Miss Snyder continues to be herself, writing magical stories that will surely be enjoyed for years to come.

Check out or purchase Any Which Wall today!

(Please see my previous September posts to find other books by Laurel Snyder that you should reading.)

Laurel Snyder September Flies on With Wishes, Tough Choices, and Seagulls

Bigger Than a Breadbox

In Bigger Than a Bread Boxthe month of November does not start with much that twelve-year-old Rebecca is thankful for. Months of her parents’ frequent arguments have led to Rebecca being told by her mother that they will be traveling to Atlanta to visit Rebecca’s grandmother. They will leave immediately with her little brother, Lew. Rebecca’s father is not invited on the trip.

 After being welcomed into her grandmother’s house, Rebecca decides to explore and discovers an attic filled with dust-covered items. While searching, she finds a collection of bread boxes but nothing else very exciting. Rebecca wishes she had a book to read but with none around, she examines the bread boxes. When she looks in a shiny metal one, she discovers a book! She brings the beautiful breadbox to her room to examine further.

As Rebecca continues to live in Atlanta she pines more for home. She wishes to be back in Baltimore; she wishes her parents were back together; she even wishes to see the seagulls that… Her bread box starts moving and making noise so Rebecca opens it and out pop two seagulls. This is when she realizes that she has a magical item that grants any wish related to something smaller than a bread box. But what she mostly wants is much, much bigger. Is there a way to use the breadbox to get her family back together?

Before delving deeper into my commentary, watch this book trailer created by an awesomely creative twelve-year-old:

I enjoyed this novel immensely. The book opens with a very powerful image of Rebecca being taken from her father, who is starting to fall apart over the realization that his kids are not going to be in his life. Although this can be a tough event for children to have to read about, it’s something that some of them have gone through and will be able to relate to or they may go through and it will cause them to think about how they would react. The story also makes readers think about what they would do if given the opportunity to possess the magical breadbox that Rebecca discovers.

In this book, the characters really come to life due to the choices they make. Rebecca’s choice to start using the breadbox to get items that will increase her popularity at her new school really helped me see her as a real person. What tween (or adult) wouldn’t use this unexpected opportunity to gain social status? Of course, anyone thinking long and hard about the bread box would have to wonder where everything was coming from and once Rebecca does this, the answer to this question leads to further problems in her life. Rebecca doesn’t always make the “right” choice for getting rid of an issue of her own creation, and I liked seeing these flaws in her decision-making process.

The events that take place in the last quarter of the book really stood out to me because I did not see most of them turning out the way that they did, and the one I did predict caused me to want to yell at the pages as I turned them because I knew things would play out badly for Rebecca. I was pleasantly surprised by the turns in Miss Snyder’s plot because they kept the book situated in the real world due to things not always being tidied up cleanly in a nice package. Life is messy and hard, and Laurel Snyder does a great job of encapsulating this fact in her writing.

This is definitely one of those fantasy books where real problems are woven into the plot well. The problems Rebecca faces (making friends, dealing with a possible divorce, having a huge secret) are very applicable for most readers. With my attention captured by the story, I smiled when Rebecca realized she needed to provide support for her younger brother, and I cursed when something else went wrong in her life. I recommend this book to anyone looking to be ensnared by the magic of an old bread box and the wonders of a well-told story.

Pick up Bigger Than a Bread Box from your library, or purchase the newly released paperback version at an independent book store today!

The Laurel Snyder Journey Continues

Next up during Laurel Snyder September is her novel Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains. This low fantasy set in a medieval kingdom follows Lucy, a spirited girl who wants more to life than simply being a milkmaid who spends her free time playing with the heir to the kingdom’s throne. She has mostly grown up with only her father and younger sister after being told as a young child that her mother was ‘gone.’ Lucy wants to know more about her mother’s sudden disappearance from her life so she takes it upon herself to journey to a nearby mountain where she believes her mother grew up. Can Lucy discover what caused her mother to be ‘gone’ from her life?

From the beginning of this novel there is a lot of humor; it is included through small comments that contain jokes at the expense of common fairy-tale lore or through little events such as the king curtsying so Wynston, the prince and Lucy’s best friend, can practice talking to princesses. I enjoyed these little moments, though they did wane (probably purposely as the weight of the trip is made clear) as Lucy’s journey continued up the mountain.

I liked Lucy’s strong personality and her independent streak. Although Lucy is generally seen as independent, she shows depth due to her inner desire to not be alone. When she is alone, she thinks of her missing mother: “Slowly Lucy had begun to question: If her mother was alive, where had she gone? Why had she gone? The question was like a tiny little fly, buzzing around her head all the time. When she was busy, she barely noticed it, but when she was alone and the world got quiet, the fly seemed loud as anything.”  Lucy reminds me of the protagonist in The Enchanted Forest Chronicles thanks to the aforementioned traits. The jabs at fairy tales also stick out as a similarity between Snyder’s book and that series by Patricia Wrede.

This book contains an underlying theme that deals with following rules and deciding when rules should be broken. Both Lucy and Wynston have places in the story when they choose to break a rule because it doesn’t meet with their own code of ethics. The following statement about Wynston demonstrates this conundrum: “He was so confused. He knew he was right, that laws were there for a reason. But he knew that what Lucy was feeling was also right. Maybe there were different kinds of right.”

I enjoyed this novel from Laurel Snyder. The adventure of Lucy has enough happening to keep readers interested throughout. The writing is peppered with strong vocabulary that can be defined thanks to context clues so younger readers can decipher these words. Detailed drawings are included throughout the book to help readers imagine what is happening in this world. This is a good book for readers looking for some light fantasy that still contains meaningful themes.

And last but not least, I have included the trailer for this book. It’s… a little different from the book trailers I have shared for previous books.

(As of this posting, that child is still not for sale.)

Continue with your Snyderific September!