Thursday, March 25, 2021

Almost There and Almost Not

Duga, Lindsey. The Haunting 
February 4th 2020 by Scholastic Press
Library copy

In Victorian London, Emily lives in Evanshires Home for Neglected Girls, having been abandoned as a baby. It's a bleak existence, brightened only by a dog, Archie, she befriended, who visits with her through the gate. When the Thorntons arrive looking for a child to adopt, they pick her, even though she is unkempt and frequently in trouble. They take her home to Blackthorn Manor, a sprawling but decrepit estate where Miss Greer takes care of the housekeeping. Right away, Emily notices odd things, and there is an ever growing list of things she is not allowed to do, like pick blackberries or play music. She does meet another girl, Kat, and the two play, although Kat is very secretive, shady, and sometimes shows up at unusual times, accompanied by creepy phenomenon. The Thorntons try to interact with Emily, but Mrs. Thornton seems very frail and prone to headaches. Emily is left alone a lot, but eventually starts to realize that there is a ghost who means her ill and is connected with a family secret. 
Strengths: I was not at all surprised at the note from Duga at the end that discussed her love of Mary Downing Hahn and the late Betty Ren Wright when she was young. Books like this are why I was sure I could make a career running an orphanage in England when I was young! There are all of the important hallmarks of creepy, killer ghosts-- crashing vases, cold spots, and creepy sounds. The Haunting pays homage to both of those authors, and is a good read alike for Barbara Brooks Wallace's historical ghost stories as well a s India Hill Brown's The Forgotten Girl
Weaknesses: I've read dozens and dozens of similar books over the years; since most of them are out of print or in very bad shape having been read frequently in my middle school library over the last 30-40 years, this is a fine book to replace those, even if it didn't seem fresh to ME.
What I really think: I liked Ghost in the Headlights a lot better, but young readers who haven't read quite as many books about orphans moving into haunted houses as I have will pick up this book for the spooky cover and share Emily's growing fear of Kat. 

My students are far more likely to pick up The Haunting, with its murderous ghost, than the following book, with its kindly, misunderstood ancestor haunting the place. 

Urban, Linda. Almost There and Almost Not
April 6th 2021 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
E ARC Provided by Edelweiss Plus 

California and her father have gotten along okay after the death of her mother, but when her father starts to struggle, he takes her to visit her Aunt Isabelle, and leaves her there, claiming there is work to be had salmon fishing in Alaska. Isabelle, in turn, takes her to Great Aunt Monica, who has recently lost her husband Milton and who has also injured her arm and needs California's "help". She doesn't know quite what to do with a young girl, so asks for her help in writing a biography of an ancestor, etiquette expert Eleanor Fontaine who wrote in the early 1900s. This was a passion project of Milton's, and encourages Aunt Monica to start moving on a bit. The two start to go through notes and cleaning the house, all while eating their way through Aunt Isabelle's stash of frozen meatloaf, but some odd things happen. California can see not only a small ghost dog, who brings her pieces of notes, but the ghost of Eleanor Fontaine herself! She has conversations with the etiquette writer about not only proper protocol, but the woman's life. Combined with the notes, California finds that there are some secrets about her ancestor that the notes will show. California does make friends with a girl she meets while running errands. Salma and her mother run a local pottery shop, ClayCation, and the two girls take to each other right away. Desperate to contact her father, California writes to her Aunt Isabelle, but after not hearing back, stops mailing them to her aunt, stashing them under her bed instead. When Aunt Monica feels a bit better, she has the house and garden cleaned, and the letters accidentally get mailed. California learns some secrets about her father as well. 
Strengths: This was an interesting twist on a child having to spend time with a relative because of a parent having difficulties. The ghosts were tremendously endearing; a fluffy dog and a pearl clutching arbiter of correct behavior who turns to dust when confronted with realities! Eleanor's hard scrabble backstory complements California's reality nicely. I can see young readers becoming very interested in calligraphy after reading it described as an activity at which California excels. 
Weaknesses: It would have been nice to see California connect a bit more to Salma and others in the community, and perhaps have a few more interactions with Monica, in order to really cement her comfort with remaining in her aunt's care.
What I really think: While I would have loved this as a child (I was a BIG fan of writing letters!), it is a bit young for my readers, who are steadfast in their love of only the most gruesome, bloodthirsty ghosts. I will probably not purchase, but this is a great gentle ghost story with some family issues for younger readers. 

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