YA ghosts and demons

Ghosts, demons, and hauntings — both metaphorical and spiritual — inhabit these eerie and atmospheric YA titles.

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin
by Roseanne A. Brown
High School    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    480 pp.    g
6/20    978-0-06-289149-5    $18.99

This tale, first in a West African–inspired duology, is narrated in the third person, from two points of view. The first protagonist, Malik, is an Eshran refugee fleeing his war-torn homeland to begin a better life in the flourishing city of Ziran. When his sister Nadia is taken by an evil spirit, Malik makes a deal to kill Ziran’s Princess Karina in exchange for Nadia. Karina, the second protagonist, believes that the way to save Ziran is to bring her mother, who was assassinated in a plot gone awry, back from the dead. Malik’s and Karina’s paths cross during Solstasia, a Zirani celebration. As the two fall in love — even as each must plot to kill the other — they question everything they know about themselves and their world. Brown includes disability representation (Malik has panic attacks and Karina has chronic migraines) as well as commentary about colonialism and prejudice. Tension builds slowly in much of the first half; impressive world-building, beautiful writing, and surprising plot twists make the faster-paced second half worth the wait. Perfect for fans of Tomi Adeyemi (Children of Blood and Bone, rev. 5/18), Sabaa Tahir (An Ember in the Ashes), and Tochi Onyebuchi (Beasts Made of Night). S. R. TOLIVER

Watch over Me
by Nina LaCour
High School    Dutton    240 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-593-10897-0    $17.99

After four years in foster care, recent high school graduate Mila begins an internship (“I would spend my weekdays teaching in the schoolhouse and my Sundays waking up at five a.m. to run the booth at the farmer’s market”) at a farm on a secluded stretch of the California coast, run by a middle-aged couple who takes in and cares for kids like her. On her first night there, owner Terry indicates that the place is haunted — but Mila has lived with “ghosts” for years. Through her straightforward but increasingly fraught first-person narration and visceral flashbacks, readers learn about her past, particularly the time she and her mother spent with her mother’s belittling, controlling boyfriend, and about a fateful choice Mila made during a fire. Printz winner LaCour’s (We Are Okay) writing is lyrical and atmospheric, both in capturing the natural setting of the story and in exploring the dark recesses of her characters’ grief, guilt, and psychic pain. While more gothic- than psychological-thriller, this is an empowering story of one young woman’s quest to rediscover the part of herself she has left behind and to become independent. Suggest it to fans of Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar (rev. 11/14) or Nova Ren Suma’s A Room Away from the Wolves (rev. 9/18). LUANN TOTH

Elatsoe
by Darcie Little Badger; illus. by Rovina Cai
Middle School, High School    Levine Querido    368 pp.    g
8/20    978-1-64614-005-3    $18.99

This absorbing and haunting speculative fiction debut challenges expectations at every turn. Ellie (short for Elatsoe) is seventeen years old, Lipan Apache, and an aspiring paranormal investigator. She has inherited her Six-Great-Grandmother’s ability to awaken the spirits of the dead, a talent she regularly employs (notably, the ghost of Kirby, her beloved English springer spaniel). When Ellie’s cousin Trevor dies suddenly, his spirit appears in a dream, revealing that he was murdered and pleading for help. This leads Ellie, her family, and her best friend to the (fictional) southern Texas town of Willowbee, a disturbing setting with a pristine façade and dark secrets. Little Badger effectively weaves stories within stories in this multilayered, metaphorical, and magical mystery. Plot, setting, and dialogue are eerily and compellingly delineated; reflections on counternarratives and colonialism are woven seamlessly alongside subplots containing fairy rings, vampires, evil wizard doctors, and the underworld. As Ellie uncovers more about what happened to her cousin, she also develops deeper understandings about herself and about history: “History is intrinsically malleable. Even without magic. It’s carried in our minds, our records.” Cai’s grayscale chapter illustrations reinforce mood as well as broader themes of identity, history, and family. ELISA GALL

Tigers, Not Daughters
by Samantha Mabry
High School    Algonquin    280 pp.    g
3/20    978-1-61620-896-7    $17.95

The Torres family, always considered misfits in their San Antonio community, suffered tragedy a year ago when eldest sister Ana fell to her death from her bedroom window. That Ana was sneaking out to see a boy unworthy of her affection, and that her sister Jessica started dating him soon after Ana’s death, are gossip-worthy enough; add to that middle sister Iridian’s angry self-isolation and youngest sister Rosa’s seeming ability to communicate with animals, and the siblings’ feeling of alienation grows. When Ana’s ghost appears, it’s unclear whether she means their family well or ill. Mabry’s moody writing paints a picture of a grief-stricken family mired in its own suffering and seemingly doomed to stay there. The descriptions are sensory (“She didn’t yet know the pure joy that came along with smelling the pages of books, how a new book smelled like chlorine or how a used book sometimes smelled like cigarettes or tangy breath”), visceral, and weird (“Jessica pulled a clump of her older sister’s hair from the [shower] trap…held the wet strands between her fingers for a few moments before putting the hair in her mouth and swallowing it”). The story’s climax is chaotic and cathartic — and it ultimately presents a path forward for the sisters. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

The Way Back
by Gavriel Savit
Middle School, High School    Knopf    368 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-98489-462-5    $18.99
Library ed.  978-1-9848-9463-2    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-1-9848-9464-9    $10.99

In this dark fantasy set in a nineteenth-century shtetl in Eastern Europe, grieving teens Bluma (who’s lost her grandmother) and Yehuda Leib (who found and lost his absent father in the same moment) travel to the Far Country and match wits with demons and other figures drawn from Jewish folklore, including the Angel of Death. Narrated with a storyteller’s cadence (“And this is how it came to pass that there, beneath her bed, Bluma descended into the sleep of the grieving under the watchful gaze of her own unblinking eyes”), the winding tale is full of creepy characters and intriguing magical objects, as the protagonists are confronted with choices that force them to face mortality. Savit (Anna and the Swallow Man, rev. 1/16) crafts an absorbing fantasy and gives teens plenty to contemplate about life, love, storytelling, and family. SHOSHANA FLAX

From the October 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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