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Family curses, grief, and fate

These recent books for middle graders dip into the supernatural (ancestral curses, spectral mothers, ghost frenemies, growing skeletons) to raise larger questions about family, friendship, memory, grief, and love.

In Lauren DeStefano’s The Girl with the Ghost Machine, ten-year-old Emmaline Beaumont and her father Julien are devastated by Emmaline’s mother’s sudden death, and grief drives Julien to spend the next two years developing a machine that can bring back his beloved wife. Left to fend for herself, Emmaline grows to resent the “ghost machine,” but when she pours a cup of tea into the machine in frustration, she inadvertently restores her mother for a few moments. DeStefano packs a lot of emotion into a tightly focused narrative, and she offers a quiet approach to understanding different ways of grieving. (Bloomsbury, 8–11 years)

In Skeleton Tree, Stanly’s seven-year-old sister Miren is very sick. His father is gone. His mother spends so much money on doctor bills that luxuries such as the new Skatepark Zombie Death Bash video game are out of the question. Then Stanly finds a finger bone in his family’s garden. The finger bone moves, then grows, and turns into a skeleton. Miren and Stanly can see the skeleton (named Princy by Miren); many adults cannot. When Miren becomes much sicker, Stanly is convinced that Princy is to blame. Kim Ventrella’s exploration of family tragedy and death will appeal to children yearning for a story that speaks the truth about difficult topics in ways that make sense to them. (Scholastic, 8–11 years)

Way back when, horse thief Walcott Montgomery and murderer Almira LaFayette got up to some strange doings in the Okefenokee Swamp. Now their descendants, especially a couple of middle graders, Blue and Tumble, are doomed to play out the end of this tale of curses, courage, trickery, family feuds, and alligators. Blue’s “fate” is that he seems destined to be a loser for life while Tumble, who feels responsible for her older brother’s death, strives to be a real-life superhero. In Tumble & Blue — a mix of tall tale, magic realism, comic midgrade mayhem, and sweetness — Cassie Beasley creates a distinctive, energetic world in which kindness is a muscular value and quirkiness is organic to the setting. (Dial, 8–11 years)

In Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller, Elizabeth and her gloomy father return to his even gloomier childhood home, Witheringe House. Elizabeth’s main company is Zenobia, a vivacious, morbid, obsessed-with-clairvoyance friend whom only Elizabeth can see. Zenobia is sure the house contains a “Spirit Presence,” and the antics Zenobia initiates do reveal secrets from the house’s past — and then alter that past, with plenty of macabre moments along the way. With a vaguely Victorian setting, snootily funny exchanges between the title characters, a Poe-esque denouement, and Gothic-feeling black-and-white illustrations by Yelena Bryksenkova, this is one to be read on dark and stormy nights. (Abrams/Amulet, 9–12 years)

From the October 2017 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She is a current member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.

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