2022 Halloween Recommendations

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As in previous years I have put together a shortlist of books that I have read this year which would make excellent treats for young readers this half-term holiday as we approach Halloween 2022.

Winnie and Wilbur: Winnie’s Best Friend by Valerie Thomas, illustrated by Korky Paul

Always a delight for children of 5-7, the Winnie and Wilbur series are wonderful books to share with a young child. The stories are fun, Winnie is probably the most colourful and accident-prone witch in children’s fiction and there is so much to see and talk about in every one of Korky Paul’s brilliant colour spreads.

Midnight Magic: The Witch Trap by Michelle Harrison, illustrated by Elissa Elwick

Bursting with autumn colour, the latest rhyming adventure of magical black cat, Midnight, is perfect for newly independent readers of 6+.

Diary of an Accidental Witch: Ghostly Getaway by Perdita and Honor Cargill, illustrated by Katie Saunders

In the latest outing for Bea Black, she and her friends take off from Little Spellshire’s School of Extraordinary Arts to participate in a school trip to Cadabra Castle, allegedly haunted by the ghost of High Master Maggitty Crawe! This wonderfully funny story has been designed with extra care to increase accessibility for dyslexic readers.

The October Witches by Jennifer Claessen

Magical, feminist refashioning of the Arthurian legend. A pacy story of witchy family feuds, perfect for readers of 9+.

Ghost Scouts series written and illustrated by Taylor Dolan

A funny, fully illustrated series of books set in a fabulously spooky summer camp, deep in the swamps of the southern states of America. A certain Halloween treat for readers of 9+.

The Mummy’s Curse by M.A. Bennett

Ever wondered about the origins of the curse of King Tut? Well this rollicking time-travel adventure will take you back to the discovery of his tomb, 100 years ago and reveal all. A spine-tingling adventure, perfect for confident readers of 9+

Shadowghast by Thomas Taylor, illustrated by George Ermos

Experience your first Halloween in Eerie-on-Sea with Herbert Lemon and Violet Parma as they uncover the secrets of the spooky seaside town’s Ghastly Night! Fantastically paced and plotted adventure for readers of 9+.

The Haunted Hills by Berlie Doherty, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell

The wild landscape of the Peak District is the setting for this tale of grief, loss and guilt. As a family’s attempts to recover from a fatal accident is interwoven with the legend of a local ghost. A sensitive, beautifully written story for readers of 11+.

The Billow Maiden by James Dixon, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell

Another sensitively crafted tale, this is set on a remote Scottish island where a young teen is being sheltered by her uncle and aunt while her mother recovers from what appears to be a mental health crisis. This story is interwoven with the discovery of a terrifying mythical creature in one of the island’s caves. The Norse legend combined with modern setting are perfect for readers of 11+.

Ghostlight by Kenneth Oppel

Boy meets ghost in this brilliantly written and imagined coming of age story, set in and around Toronto. This is a book which will absolutely transport readers of 11+ into an alternative reality where ghosts battle for dominance over humans in a setting which will be unusual and educational for many UK based readers.

Review: The Haunted Hills by Berlie Doherty, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell

Cover illustration Tamsin Rosewell, published by UCLan Publishing, October 2022

This story of grief, guilt and loss set against the wildness of the Peak District is a book to read slowly in order to savour the atmosphere created by award-winning author Berlie Doherty. I sat down to read it as the rain hammered down outside, appropriately harmonising with the emotion that pours from the narrative, and couldn’t tear myself away.

Thirteen year-old Carl is staying in a remote holiday cottage with his photographer mother and teacher father, high in a Peak District landscape dominated by the bleating of sheep and cries of birds. However, this is not the carefree family holiday that many will have enjoyed in this wild, natural setting; it is apparent from the start that the family have travelled to enable Carl to recover from the fatal accident in which his childhood best friend, Jack, has died. Unsurprisingly, for such a gifted writer, Berlie Doherty conveys the sense of a family struggling to come to terms with grief with immense insight and sympathy. This is a realistic and three-dimensional portrayal, with both parents depicted trying everything they can to bring their son back from the edge of despair, and Carl understanding and appreciating his parents’ efforts but unable to tear himself out of the deep well of loss into which he has been plunged.

The landscape is integral to the atmosphere of the story and the incorporation of folklore in the form of a ghost story about the Lost Lad, Joseph, and his dog who haunt the area, watching over lost souls in the hills gives depth to Carl’s disorientation and dissociation from the life that he has known before. With voices in the wind, elusive figures in the corners of his eye and a house that creaks and breathes with former lives, we explore Carl’s sense of unreality. I found that the descriptions of his mother’s artistic landscape photography, utilising changes of light to create shadowy images, beautifully depicted the way that Carl is struggling to emerge from the gloom of bereavement and the part that he feels he might have contributed to his friend’s death. For as the story develops, we are given a glimpse into the gradual loss that changing friendships can cause during the teenage years when children moved on from shared childhood interests and perhaps forge new friendship groups. Juxtaposed against Carl’s loss is that of peripatetic shepherdess April, who is working on the neighbouring farm and has her own reasons for wandering the hills and feeling the presence of the Lost Lad. As they begin to understand each other’s need to be lifted from their despair, hope glimmers for acceptance and recovery.

Photo across the Peak District taken from Ramshaw Rocks by V Price, July 2022

This is not a “spooky” ghost story but rather a breath-taking exploration of the ambiguous nature of grief, suffused with understanding and imagination. Although this book is written for a readership of 11+, I think that its sensitive portrayal of a family overcoming a devastating loss holds valuable messages for all readers. The imagery of the crows, used so powerfully here, has prompted me to re-read a book which was given to me by a dear friend following a family bereavement, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, which I would also recommend to older readers.

I am most grateful to UCLan publishing and Antonia Wilkinson for sending me a proof copy of The Haunted Hills in exchange for my honest opinion.

#MG Review: Ghostlight by Kenneth Oppel

ARC cover image, publisher Guppy Books, due October 2022

This book has everything that an advanced middle grade reader could wish for; action, friendship, innocent first love (boy meets ghost), mystery solving, sense of place and a spine tingling ghost story! From the opening sentence:

Rebecca Strand was sixteen the first time she saw her father kill a ghost

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I was utterly gripped. I had not previously read anything by the prize-winning Canadian author, Kenneth Oppel, but have now downloaded some of his earlier titles to my Kindle. If you are looking for a fresh take on a ghost story, are aged 10-14 and you have previously enjoyed Frost Hollow Hall and Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll, then make this your next choice after it is published on 13th October 2022!

Fifteen year old Gabe is working a summer holiday job, recounting the historical story of the mysterious deaths of Rebecca Strand and her father, as part of the ghost tour he gives daily at the abandoned Gibraltar Point Lighthouse which used to guard the entrance to Toronto’s harbour. On the day that one of the tourists in his audience turns out to be a descendant of Rebecca Strand, Gabe discovers that ghosts really do walk the earth and is drawn into a historical, detective mystery alongside best friend Yuri, teenage descendant of the lighthouse keepers and ghost blogger Callie, and the spectral form of Rebecca Strand. Together they must solve the riddle of the missing “ghostlight”, get their hands on this powerful amber disc, and fulfil the mission of the ancient Order of Keepers to destroy the hideously evil Viker, a villainous ghost hungry for power over the living and the dead.

I thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of this novel. The teenage characters really do come to life on the pages as genuine individuals. Gabe is a sensitive, caring boy who is still struggling to come to terms with the loss of his father – first to another woman and then suddenly, to a fatal car accident. As his relationship with the ghostly form of Rebecca Smart develops we see him opening up his padlocked emotions and eventually learning the power of forgiveness. Yuri is similarly expertly rendered, the son of Russian immigrants, his mother is a journalist who has had to flee Russia and his father is an engineer struggling to gain the paperwork that will allow him to stay and work in Canada. We see the strain that this uncertainty places on Yuri, even as he utilises his inherent engineering ability to create the weaponry to fend off a ghost army. Aspiring journalist Callie was my favourite character from the moment she uttered the line:

Student librarian, four years running…I know my way around a database.

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as she expertly explains to Gabe, Yuri and Rebecca how she tracked down ancient court transcripts in her hunt for the location of the missing “ghostlight”. There are several key moments of library-related action which highlight the importance of repositories of knowledge and made this librarian’s heart sing!

Finally, the ghostly side of the story. Rebecca comes across as a normal, although somewhat old-fashioned girl; she has been dead for 200 years after all! She is able to communicate with Gabe by “clasping”, holding his hand to gain some of his living energy and to allow him to see her. This connection between them grows throughout the story into a totally innocent first love that genuinely tugs at the heart strings, it is perfectly pitched for a tween to early teen audience who primarily want a thrilling story with some emotional content but are not yet ready for adult themes. Rebecca’s character is not scary but Viker, who wishes to raise an army of the “wakeful and wicked dead” is quite terrifying and readers of a sensitive nature (like me) might want to read this book during daylight hours only!

I will not go into any more plot details for fear of spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of the narrative. I will just leave you with the recommendation that if you have any responsibility for choosing books to be read by Year 6 or Key Stage 3 pupils, put Ghostlight on your pre-order list for the autumn term.

I am most grateful to Liz Scott and Guppy Books for my review ARC in return for my honest opinion on Ghostlight.

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Ghost Garden by Emma Carroll, illustrated by Kaja Kajfež

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read. Also, please check out all the other posts and Tweets with the #MGTakesOnThursday tag, you will be sure to find many fantastic recommendations!

If you love books written for an MG audience and wish to take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.
Cover art by Kaja Kajfež, published by Barrington Stoke

Author: Emma Carroll

Illustrator: Kaja Kajfež

Publisher: Barrington Stoke

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“ Who’d hit their brother so hard as to break his leg, eh?”

This book in three words: Friendship – Prescience – Upheaval

A new book from “the Queen of Historical fiction” Emma Carroll is always worth celebrating and I was delighted to find that one of my favourite authors had been commissioned to write for dyslexia-friendly publisher Barrington Stoke. Readers who have followed my blog will know that I am passionate about books that encourage dyslexic readers. I was first introduced to the publisher Barrington Stoke by a marvellous specialist dyslexia tutor who worked with one of my own children many years ago. I am so pleased that they now publish books by highly regarded children’s authors so that dyslexic children can benefit from reading the wonderful fiction that these authors produce; not feel any sense of stigma that they are reading “different” books; and be given a gateway to perhaps tackling longer books or possibly listening to audiobooks by the best writers for children.

This novella is set in the summer of 1914, before the outbreak of the First World War and although not a first person narrative, it is very much told from the point of view of Fran, daughter to the head gardener of a fine country property named Longbarrow House, owned by Mrs Walker. Emma Carroll has the extraordinary ability to capture the essence of her protagonist’s personalities in a few lines of dialogue and you soon realise that Fran is a curious mixture of no-nonsense, hardworking, emotionally-intelligent working class child who has an imaginative side which is open to the possibility of ghostly occurrences. She feels inferior to the noisy, fussy, rich grandchildren who arrive from their boarding schools for the summer holidays preferring to keep out of their way and avoid the teasing of the young twins and the superior attitude of Leo, the eldest.

However, when Leo’s leg is badly broken by a cricket bat and Fran finds herself assigned to be his companion for the summer, an unlikely friendship and some supernatural manifestations develop. The illustrations by Kaja Kajfež throughout the book not only give readers a chance to pause but also add to the spooky atmosphere.

Despite writing a short book, which gives less confident readers the optimum chance to finish it and feel the accompanying sense of achievement, Emma Carroll has crafted a perfect treasure of a story. The tension mounts throughout the narrative as Fran and Leo investigate the archaeological landscape whilst rumours of impending war swirl in the background. The depicted change in normal social relationships predicts the upheaval and change about to be inflicted on the norms of society by the declaration of war with Germany. I would highly recommend this story to all readers of 9+ and for those who are discovering Emma Carroll for the first time and perhaps want to try something slightly more challenging next, I would suggest Skychasers, The Snow Sister, her book of short stories When We Were Warriors before moving onto Letters from the Lighthouse, Secrets of A Sun King and my all-time favourite Strange Star.

Finally, I would just like to give a shoutout to The Rocketship Bookshop from whom I was able to purchase a signed copy of this book. It is so vital that we bookworms do our best to support independent bookshops to help them survive in these uncertain times. I usually try to buy books from an independent bookshop in my own town, but as my daughter owns all of Emma’s books in signed format I was desperate to continue adding to her collection. Not only did this lovely bookseller supply me with the perfect copy, they also wrapped it beautifully as you can see from the picture above! (I am not an affiliate of this bookshop, I just want to give praise where it is due.)