How I Became a Ghost

by Tim Tingle
First line: “Maybe you have never read a book written by a ghost before.”
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Content: This is not a happy story. This is a sad and painful story. And even though the language is suitable for ages 8 and up, the content is, well, hard. And sad. And painful. (It was difficult even for me to get through because of the subject matter.) It’s in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore, but I’d be careful which child to give it to.

There was a time in my life, when I was junior or senior in high school, when I would have loved this story.

Isaac is a Choctaw boy, happy growing up in the swamps of the south. That is until the Nahullos — the white people — come along, and begin forcing his people out of their homes. And that’s when Isaac begins seeing ghosts. He sees shades of how his family and friends will die (horrible, horrible deaths). He foretells his own death and becomes a ghost. (No surprise: it’s in the first sentence!)

It’s when they’re on the Trail of Tears, however, that things get intense. The soldiers kidnap a girl, and it’s up to Isaac — as a ghost — and his friend — who can morph into a panther — to rescue her. They do, and it’s quite interesting how it happens.

I mentioned that I would have loved this story when I was younger. It’s because I was fascinated by — that seems the wrong word — the Native Americans, and their genocide. I would have eaten this book up, and passed it along to everyone I could. Now, though? Now, I just felt impossibly sad. I know it’s a tale that Needs to be told, a story that so many people need to be reminded of. But call it liberal guilt, call it having children: I couldn’t stomach it. It wasn’t violent, necessarily, but it was heart-wrenching. And even though Isaac turned out to be a hero, I never could find it in my heart to be proud of him (even though I wanted to).

It’s a well-written story, and a book that needs to be out there. I’m just not sure that I’m the right reader for it.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

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Ghost Hawk

by Susan Cooper
ages: 11+
First sentence: “He had left his canoe in the river, tied to a branch of a low-growing cherry tree.”
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I should start with this: the woman can write. A random passage: “John went off to their allotted acre of land beyond the houses, where corn and pumpkins were growing. He did not point out to Daniel Smith that the swelling ears of corn were more at risk from night-prowling raccoon than from daytime birds.”  Or: “We gutted the deer, and tied their forelegs together and then their hind legs, and we carried them home, each one hanging by the legs form a pole carried by two strong men. It took all night and half the net day, but it was a triumphal procession, and our return was greed with cries of praise and delight.” It’s one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about Cooper’s writing: she knows how to evoke a place, and with the simplest of words, create a mood.

But.

I knew about the inaccuracies and controversy surrounding this one before starting it. In some ways, I think it was inevitable: a book about a Wampanoag young man (especially a children’s book, it seems; was there the same sort of backlash around Caleb’s Crossing? If so, I missed it.) written by a white person is bound to create backlash. And to be fair, I understand that. But I have to admit that that’s not my primary problem with the novel. No: for me, it was because it was boring.

Cooper went into detail about the life of both Little Hawk as well as a Puritan boy, John Wakeley, and even though there were a couple of surprises (let me just say, I found out a third of the way through why it’s a SFEMG nominee), I was bored. I could care less about the characters, the story. I wanted to care. I wanted to see people like Daniel Smith and William Kelly — who were in favor of exterminating the Native Americans because they were savages (which always brought to mind the savages song from Pocahontas) — I just didn’t. It’s not because I didn’t recognize that their views were wrong. I just didn’t feel it.

And the last third? (The epilogue and post-epilogue as I think of them.) I basically skimmed them. Because once both Little Hawk and John stopped being kids, I lost interest. It’s a middle-grade book, for heaven’s sake. Have we forgotten what that means??

I wanted this to be better, just because it’s Susan Cooper. And I was disappointed that it wasn’t.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)