Ghost stories and urban legends

These middle-grade and middle-school spine-tinglers will leave fans thrilled and chilled. Stay tuned for more coverage of spooky reads this October leading up to Halloween, including our annual Horn BOO! roundup. Follow #13BooksofHalloween on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Only If You Dare: 13 Stories of Darkness and Doom
by Josh Allen; illus. by Sarah J. Coleman
Middle School    Holiday    208 pp.    g
8/21    978-0-8234-4906-4    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-8234-5066-4    $9.99

Thirteen illustrated short stories range from eerie to totally terrifying. Each tale stands completely alone, but a strong sense of foreboding, unease, and utterly chilling twists runs through the collection. Readers will get a good dose of scary clowns, spiders, and other horror staples, while a few more unusual terrors feature as well: think cursed oatmeal, a sinister summer job, and a cellphone with a little too much personality. Some of the main characters — all are roughly middle school–aged — deserve the terrors that befall them, but others are snatched by specters while simply, for instance, playing a board game at home. There’s no relying on logic or fairness in Allen’s imaginative world. The writing is crisp and lively, getting right to the point while still building suspense. The frightening concepts and grisly illustrations may put off more timorous readers, but intrepid tweens and teens who enjoy a thrill will be thoroughly sucked in. SARAH BERMAN

Ophie’s Ghosts
by Justina Ireland
Intermediate, Middle School    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    336 pp.    g
5/21    978-0-06-291589-4    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-291585-6    $9.99

“When she was twelve, Ophelia Harrison saw her first ghost” — that of her father. Having been lynched for voting as a Black man in 1920s Georgia, he appears to Ophie and warns her and her mother away before the murderers arrive to burn down their house. They flee to Pittsburgh, where Mrs. Harrison finds a job as a domestic worker for the affluent white Caruthers family, occupants of Daffodil Manor. Ophie reluctantly leaves school when a housemaid position opens up (they need the extra money to move out of Aunt Rose’s house, which is already crowded with mean-tempered cousins). Ophie soon realizes that Daffodil Manor is haunted by many ghosts, including a young woman named Clara, who can’t remember how she died. When Ophie attempts to solve the mystery of Clara’s demise, she unwittingly uncovers a horrifying Caruthers family secret stemming from a legacy of slavery and oppression. Ireland’s (Dread Nation, rev. 5/18) first middle-grade novel thoughtfully explores issues of race, privilege, and historical injustice, while also being a well-paced and shivery supernatural page-turner. Fans of The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste, Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh, and Doll Bones (rev. 7/13) by Holly Black will enjoy this suspenseful and multilayered read. JENNIFER HUBERT SWAN

Deadman’s Castle
by Iain Lawrence
Intermediate, Middle School    Ferguson/Holiday    256 pp.    g
3/21    978-0-8234-4655-1    $17.99

This is a creepy adventure tale, a family story, and a story of an outsider finding his way in “the freak show known as middle school.” Igor Watson’s father once saw a man do a terrible thing. He reported it to the police, and ever since, the man has been after them, vowing revenge. “Watch for a man with a lizard tattooed on his skin,” Igor’s father told him years ago, and since then they have been on the run across the country, chased by the Lizard Man and under the care of the “Protectors.” They’ve lived in so many places, in so many new homes, and under so many aliases that narrator Igor doesn’t even remember his real name. Now he is twelve, and he wonders about his father being the only one ever to have seen this Lizard Man. Is their predator real, or is his father “crazy,” as some people say? This tension drives the gripping tale to a pulse-pounding conclusion. An author’s note describes the “bird’s nest of memories” that led to this story. DEAN SCHNEIDER

Paper Heart
by Cat Patrick
Intermediate, Middle School    Putnam    304 pp.    g
5/21    978-1-9848-1534-7    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-9848-1535-4    $10.99

Tessa, thirteen, is spending the summer in a small town in Wyoming, staying with her aunt, uncle, and cousins and going to art camp. Right from the get-go she is thrown into an eerie situation in which elements from a campfire ghost story she once invented to amuse her friend Colette seem to be playing out in the real world. The mystery and tragedy of Colette’s recent death in an accident; Tessa’s struggles with anxiety; middle-grade staples such as the mean girl and the sullen, more sophisticated cousin; and the sheer shivery fun of an urban legend commingle in a highly readable, convincing, and gripping narrative. This is a companion volume to Tornado Brain (rev. 9/20), a novel told from the point of view of Tessa’s twin sister, Frankie (who reappears here). Together the tales create a rich stereo effect as we combine Frankie’s take on the world — that of a young woman on the autism spectrum — with Tessa’s somewhat more typical but still particular and detailed perspective. However, the story also works effectively as a standalone ­narrative, as author Patrick is adept at neatly filling in backstory. Crisp dialogue, subtle characterization, a sprinkling of romance, liberal handfuls of humor, and clever mystery plotting add up to a very satisfying read. SARAH ELLIS

Long Lost
by Jacqueline West
Intermediate    Greenwillow    288 pp.    g
5/21    978-0-06-269175-0    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-269177-4    $8.99

Eleven-year-old Fiona blames her older sister Arden for their family’s move to the “quaint” (fictional) Massachusetts town of Lost Lake. Arden, thirteen, is a successful figure skater, and Fiona feels that her parents value her sister more than her. Finding solace in the town’s library, Fiona discovers a mysterious book called The Lost One that tells the story of two sisters from that very town, one of whom disappeared a hundred years ago. The Lost One refuses to stay put, despite Fiona’s best efforts, and it routinely disappears from her possession, only to show up at the library again. Together with a boy from Lost Lake, Fiona investigates the history of the two sisters and the legend of the fearsome Searcher that is said to snatch children from the town’s woods. What starts as rather a cozy mystery — small town, quirky librarian, strange book — builds up to a spooky denouement with brief but very real peril the intrepid youngsters must face. While the shift in tone from the main text to passages of The Lost One feel jarring at first, the two stories blend together nicely by the end, and readers will be eager to learn the fates of both pairs of sisters. The realistic and picturesque details of Lost Lake capture small-town New England perfectly — but with sinister history lurking behind every old landmark. SARAH A. BERMAN

From the September 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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