Thursday, January 20, 2022

Riley's Ghost

Anderson, John David. Riley's Ghost
January 11th 2022 by Walden Pond Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

N.B. This is one of those books that is kind of hard to review because I don't want to give anything away!

Riley has had a hard time in middle school, and it doesn't help that her parents are very busy and she frequently has to spend a lot of time at home alone. Her mother is a nurse, and her father is a train engineer who is frequently gone. She had managed to hang on through middle school while she hada best friend, Emily, but when Emily tires of Riley's impulsive, sometimes embarassing behavior, Riley is alone. She takes refuge in the library, where the librarian, Mrs. Grissolm, lets her help process books, eat M&Ms, and stay until 5:30. On one day, as she is leaving school late, she runs into Emily with her new friends. They are unhappy about an incident earlier in the day where Riley got a boy in trouble when he put a dissection frog against her face, and the group locks her in a storage room after Riley stands up for herself. She is frantic, and once she gets out and fails to make contact with anyone outside school, she starts to worry. But she is not alone. She is helped (and frightened!) by the ghost of the frog from science class, who turns out to be Max. Max had a heart attack in his 40s, but had attended Riley's school, and his ghost is stuck there for some reason. This is most likely because of his relationship with Heather, who had many personality traits in common with Riley, had a horrendously awful middle school experience that Max didn't help with, and died at a young age. Her ghost is also threatening Riley. How will these ghosts, as well as the ghosts of Riley's own past, help Riley to make peace with her present?
Strengths: Riley's personality is on trend with having characters with more complex and challenging traits. For example, when she pulls the fire alarm, it is the third time she has done it. She is frequently in the principals' office for various offenses. She is picked on, but stands up for herself, which sometimes ends with her decking another student, stabbing someone's hand with a sharp pencil, or pouring a full plate of spaghetti on someone's lap. Anderson does a particularly good job at using upper middle grade language, things like "hell" and "Jesus", which is coarse but not as offensive as it could be. Riley is frequently home alone, something which is very common for middle school students.  The ghost part of the story is fairly scary. The friend drama is also on point, and we're now seeing about as many books from both sides of friendship issues-- the friends who are embarassing and left behind, and the friends who move on. Max and Heather's relationship mirrors Riley and Emily's nicely. The theme of supporting each other is a good one, and similar to this author's Posted. Of course, librarians everywhere will award this one bonus points for the fabulous Mrs. Grissolm.
Weaknesses: This was rather unrelentingly sad. Riley's own experiences were just fraught, and she had so few resources to help her cope, and the ghosts had even more problems. It made me feel... icky and unsettled when I read it. Will this instead make students feel better about their own lives? 
What I really think: This was more like Granted, Finding Orion, or Last Shot than Ms. Bixby's Last Day or The Dungeoneers. I'm impressed with Anderson's range and his creativity in developing innovative story lines. I do wish his books were a bit shorter, so that more students would pick them up. This one might be a challenge for some readers because of the constant flashbacks to the past.

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