Category Archives: Mystery

Creepy and More: Doll Bones

It’s October, when more kids than usual come into the library asking for “something scary.”   Here’s a new one that is quietly creepy, but also a superbly written tale with much more to offer than just chills.

doll bonesDoll Bones, by Holly Black (lexile: 840; AR book level: 5.4; 244 pp)

Twelve-year-olds Zach, Alice, and Poppy have been friends for most of their lives, and for years they’ve been playing The Game — a never-ending tale of adventure they make up as they go along.  The characters are an array of old dolls and action figures that become pirates, mermaids, warriors, and thieves.  And ruling over all is the one they call The Great Queen, represented by an antique bone-china doll belonging to Poppy’s mother, locked away in a glass cabinet.

Zach is the narrator of the story, and he loves the game — it’s almost like he’s “accessing some other world, one that felt real as anything.”  But he’s also on the basketball team at school now, and would hate for any of the other guys to know he still plays with action figures.  He’s at that awkward stage when he’d love to stay a kid for a while longer, and fears the changes that growing up will bring.

Then one night Poppy takes the Queen from the cabinet.  Soon she begins to have dreams, haunted by a girl named Eleanor who says the doll is made from her bones.  Eleanor promises she will make their lives miserable unless they properly bury the doll in her grave in Ohio.

Is Poppy just making this up so they can have one real adventure together?  Zach and Alice aren’t sure, but finally Zach decides that “anything was better than no magic at all.”  So in the middle of the night they set out on a quest, guided (perhaps) by the ghost of a long-dead girl.

Several elements make Doll Bones a cut above most ghost stories.  First, the creepiness is subtle.  There are no big, over-the-top, scream-worthy moments, just the strange occurrences that leave the characters and the reader wondering, “Could it be?” Second is the gradually-revealed mystery of the doll’s origins and Eleanor’s story.  And finally this is more than a scary story — it’s also a tale about imagination, and growing up, navigating the inevitable changes that come with moving from childhood into adolescence.

I’m predicting Newbery winners again this year (hey, I got one right last year!), and I think Doll Bones will end up a Newbery honor book.  (I’ve already decided Navigating Early should win, and I’m REALLY hoping What Came from the Stars will be on the honor list.  Now wouldn’t it be cool if I got them ALL right?)


If Willy Wonka Ran a Hotel: Floors

Floors, by Patrick Carman (lexile: 870; AR book level: 5.7; 272 pp)

It’s the rare and lucky boy who gets to stay at the amazingly crazy Whippet Hotel.  Built by the eccentric, fabulously wealthy Merganzer Whippet, each of the 9 floors (or are there more?) has a different theme, with signature rooms full of clever gadgets.  Want to play the Pinball Room (yes, built just like a giant game)?  Or how about the Robot Room?  The Railroad Room?  And what about the Double Helix, that will take you from the lobby to the roof in 5 seconds?

Ten-year-old Leo Fillmore is that lucky boy.  His father is the maintenance man, and together he and Leo keep everything running and the guests — and six very important ducks — happy.  But Merganzer Whippet has vanished and things are inexplicably starting to fall apart at the hotel.   Is it accidental, or is someone plotting to take over the Whippet?

Then on the 100th day since Mr Whippet’s disappearance, Leo finds a puzzling box addressed to him, apparently from Merganzer himself.  Inside are cryptic clues that will lead him on a mysterious hunt throughout the hotel, to places he never knew existed.  At stake are his future, his father’s, and that of the hotel he loves.

As some reviews will tell you, this book is not deep.  But the characters are crazy, the hotel crazier, and the unfolding mystery fun to read, with a very surprising ending (to me, at least).  There are obvious parallels to Roald Dahl, so if you like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, chances are you’ll like Floors.  AND it’s the first book in a trilogy!  There are two sequels so far, 3 Below, and The Field of Wacky Inventions.

For more about the book, including author interviews, you can also check the Floors website.

Ghost Pictures: The Seer of Shadows

In an earlier post, I highlighted some lighter, funnier, shorter ghost stories for younger readers.  This one is not — not lighter, funnier, or shorter — but it IS a wonderfully-written, chilling tale by a master of historical fiction.

The Seer of Shadows, by Avi (lexile: 720; AR book level: 5.2; 208 pp)

What if your camera could capture the image of ghosts?  What if your camera could make them come to life?

It is 1872.  The art of photography is relatively new, and mostly for the very rich.  Fourteen-year-old Horace Carpetine sets out to make  his way in the world as the apprentice to a rather unscrupulous photographer, Enoch Middleditch.  When Middleditch is commissioned to take a portrait of a grieving (and wealthy) Mrs Von Macht to place on her daughter’s tomb, he makes Horace help him scam the woman into buying more pictures.  With the magic of photography, he will place a ghostly image of the girl, Eleanora, in the picture with her mother.  What Middleditch doesn’t realize is that Horace’s pictures are no fabrication: he really has photographed — and awakened — Eleanora’s ghost.  All is not as it seems in the Von Macht household, and Eleanora has returned to enact her terrifying revenge.

Horace himself tells the story, as he finds himself allied with the Von Macht’s servant girl, Peggy, to unravel the Von Machts’ secrets and try to stop Eleanora.   It is  suspenseful, well-told, and includes well-researched details on the history of photography and life among the wealthy  in New York City in the late 19th century.  (Just don’t read it before you get a family picture taken.)

A Tapestry of Words and Pictures: Wonderstruck

Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick (lexile: 830; AR book level: 5.4; 640 pp)

Last night I read 2½ pounds of book — 640-pages — in a couple hours.  No, I’m not a gonzo-speed-reader — the book was Brian Selznick’s new Wonderstruck, with 460+ pages of just pictures.  If you have read his earlier Caldecott award-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret* (basis of the recent movie Hugo), you will recognize Selznick’s intricate black & white drawings.  In Wonderstruck, however, he takes the marriage of illustration and text to a whole new level.

Wonderstruck tells the separate, gradually intertwining stories of two young people, Ben and Rose, each of whom is desperately seeking something.  Ben’s story, told in words, begins in 1977, when his mother passes away.  Among her belongings he finds a tantalizing clue that may lead him to the father he has never known.  So without telling his aunt and uncle with whom he’s staying, he sets out on a journey that will take him to New York City.

Rose’s tale begins in 1927, and is told entirely in pictures.  She, too, sets out on a journey, and through the detailed illustrations you gradually piece together the mystery of who she is and what she’s seeking.  Though 50 years apart, the two stories weave together, converging until … well, it’s a happy ending, but the rest you’ll have to discover yourself.

The story of Wonderstruck is good, but the WAY the story is told is amazing.  The two stories, the pictures and text, are interwoven so well, each providing clues to what’s going on in the other.  For me there were lots of “Aha!” moments as bits of the plot fell into place, as details in both the text and pictures suddenly made sense.  If you like puzzles to solve and pictures that invite exploration, Wonderstruck is a good choice.  (And don’t let the 2½ pounds of book scare you.)

*and if you haven’t, why not?

Aha! The Bloodwater Mysteries

I love a good mystery — one with just enough clues to keep you guessing as you go along, until you reach the end and it all suddenly — aha! —  falls together.  And it doesn’t hurt to have some fast-paced chases and a few scary moments thrown in as well.  Here’s a fairly new mystery series that is just right for kids moving into slightly bigger chapter books.

Snatched (Bloodwater Mysteries #1), by Pete Hautman and Mary Logue (lexile: 610; AR book level: 4.1; 200 pp)

Roni Delicata and Brian Bain are partners … sort of.  Roni is the pushy investigative reporter for her high school newspaper, The Bloodwater Pump, and Brian a freshman science geek.  They meet outside the principal’s office, where Roni’s ended up for being too pushy, and Brian for a science experiment gone awry (his hydrogen sulfide generator fills the school with smelly gas).  They’re opposites in personality, but come together when a new student, Alicia Camden, is kidnapped, and they’re determined to figure out who did it.  Could it be Alicia’s stepfather?  Or her ex-boyfriend?  Or Driftwood Doug, the strange man who lives on Wolf Spider Island and seems to have a connection to the mansion where Alicia’s family lives?  There are plenty of clues along the way, with twists and turns in the plot, and a few narrow escapes.  If you’re very clever you may figure it out before Brian and Roni do. (I didn’t!)

If you like fast-paced mystery, but are ready to move to something a little more adventurous and involved than Jigsaw Jones, The Bloodwater Mysteries are a great choice.  The chapters are short and the stories move quickly, but the characters are well-developed and the interaction between unlikely partners Roni and Brian is funny.

There are only three titles in the series.  My favorite is the second one, Skullduggery — it involves cave exploration, a possibly ancient archaeological find, and a professor who is knocked unconscious to keep him from revealing what he’s discovered.  The third is Doppelganger — Roni and Brian find themselves on the trail of a long-lost kidnapped child — who may in fact be Brian!