Great Illustrated Books


Pam Smy

Roaring Brook Press
Pages : 544
Suggested Ages: Ages 10–14
ISBN: 9781626726543

This ghost story begins on the cover: a lone figure stands in an attic window in a large, dark building, under a spooky moon and clouds. The endpapers and subsequent spreads continue the vibe with a dilapidated barbed wire fence, weeds, and a Keep Out sign in stark black-and-white illustrations. A large crow stands on a fencepost, its gaze directing readers to the next section of the book, a diary entry.

Parallel narratives of two lonely girls, set thirty-five years apart in and around an orphanage, shape this unusual novel. Author and illustrator Pam Smy employs the hybrid format pioneered by Brian Selznick with The Invention of Hugo Cabret to build an emotionally fraught story of an unconventional, and otherworldly, friendship.

Ella is settling into her new home in the present day, arranging her possessions, which include a portrait of her with her mother. Through her bedroom window is Thornhill, an abandoned and immense former orphanage, with imposing chimneys and broken windows. Ella’s story unfolds entirely through full-page black-and-white ink drawings, along with notes from her never-seen father to fill in enough detail to let us know that she is often alone. Where is Ella’s mother? Why have she and her father relocated? Ella’s solitude and obvious sadness are never fully explained, but the visual clues in her illustrated, dialogue-free story lead readers to their own conclusions.

Ella’s stark illuminations alternate with the prose diary entries of Mary Baines, an orphan at Thornhill in 1982. Where Ella’s story is slim on details, Mary’s diary is a running account of her painful life at Thornhill, where she is emotionally and physically abused by another orphan. Mary, who has ceased verbal communication almost entirely, retreats to her room high in Thornhill’s eaves to write, and to craft beautiful clay puppets that provide her with solace and creative release. Mary rereads The Secret Garden, whose heroine is also an orphan named Mary. There are other parallels between the two orphans, Mary Baines notes, as she builds a puppet to honor the Mary of the novel. Smy, in turn, pays homage to The Secret Garden by drawing on its symbols—a buried key, birds, and a garden as a place for nurturing and growth—as the conduit for communication between Mary Baines and Ella, who lives just beyond the garden walls.

Ella explores Thornhill for evidence of the shadowy girl she sees in a window and in the garden, and discovers Mary’s puppets and then her diary. Ella is consumed by Mary’s tragic story, and makes little offerings of comfort and hope for Mary to find. The narratives fully converge in an oddly fitting and dramatic conclusion in the ruins of Thornhill.

Pam Smy’s gothic, suspenseful novel is occasionally quite scary, but for the reader who enjoys some spine-tingling, it is an unusual and thrilling tale of friendship and resilience. 

Reviewed by : Pam Yosca

Themes :

If you love this book, then try:

The Marvels by Brian Selznick
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
Doll Bones by Holly Black
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Critics have said

"The book will certainly pull lovers of ghost stories, narrative illustration and creepy dolls into its dark pages, to revel in its scares and ambiguities."―The New York Times Book Review

"Atmospheric and emotional in an understated way... Beautiful, moody, sad, and spooky―all at once."―Kirkus, starred review

"All levels of readers―from reluctant readers to adults―will find themselves flying through these pages"―VOYA, starred review

"This British import is a stunner"―Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, starred review

"A chilling tale that highlights the importance of kindness and child advocacy while emphasizing the lasting damage wrought by abuse and neglect."―Publishers Weekly, starred review