Suee and the Shadow by Ginger Ly, illustrated by Molly Park.
Amulet Books, Abrams, New York, 2017.
MG fantasy/horror graphic novel, 236 pages.
Lexile: GN270L ( What does GN mean in Lexile? )
AR Level: 2.7 (worth 2.0 points) .
NOTE: Although this has a low reading level, it’s recommended for middle grades.
Twelve-year-old Suee is a new student at boring Outskirts Elementary, and she’s determined to get through her last bit of elementary school with no complications. That means no friends, no sharing information with the counselor, and no getting involved in anything weird. Too bad a voice is calling to her from the exhibit room and her shadow is alive.
This book caught my eye even though it wasn’t time for a new Target pick (well I was looking for Aru Shah and it was sold out, which is great news). Suee struck me as an unusual name, so I picked up the book and found out it’s by a South Korean author-illustrator team, and set there as well. I suspect this will do well with fans of The Jumblies, because it has the same creepy-magical vibe.
Horror is the only genre I completely avoid, but lately I’ve been finding that elementary/middle grade horror is readable – it doesn’t get too scary or contain my usual triggers. I won’t comment too much on the horror elements of this and give away the plot, but it manages to have a dark and creepy vibe without being downright nightmarish.
Part of that is the art style – many pages are black with white print, and there is a liberal use of black even in the colored pages – all the characters’ hair, Suee’s clothes, and many shadows. There’s also some sections in grayscale to indicate mood or a past event. The limited palette still manages to be deliciously creepy.
Suee’s first-person narration is separate from the dialogue, in boxes. She often is thinking something quite different from what she’s saying, but she’s also not an entirely reliable narrator – she forgets things, passes out, and lies. This does make the book a bit confusing in parts, but don’t worry, it is cohesive at the end. The confusion also makes this a great reread, as then the pieces can be seen coming together.
There are two main aspects of this. One is the mystery revolving around the shadows and kids at school who are “zeros”, but another part is friendship and bullying.
Suee is determined not to have any friends, but she also doesn’t like the mean culture she finds at her new school. There is the stereotypical mean girl queen bee, as well as others who participate in the bullying. Some children are on the bottom of the social ranking, branded both by words and in Suee’s mind as losers. These children are the most likely to fall through the cracks and become “zeros.”
I did wonder whether the zeros were an unintentional (or intentional) commentary on depression. Bullying and social isolation seemed to be the hallmarks of a kid turning into a zero. However, contrary to popular American stereotypes, the zeros were never violent or dangerous. Other children avoided them out of fear or cruelty, but they were the most likely to get caught up in the larger plot and be unable to protect themselves.
Suee has some difficult lessons to learn about trust, friendship, and the importance of belonging even while she’s struggling with the main mystery. Her parents’ divorce and her isolation from them (she rarely sees her mother and her father is constantly working) have also had a big impact on her character. She grows a great deal over the course of the book.
Although the main story is resolved, the door is left open for a sequel, and I would definitely welcome one. This was a very fast, readable book, and it’s one of those rare elementary school titles that I think my middle school students would also devour. On the other hand, sensitive or easily scared kids might be afraid of their own shadow (or the dark) after reading this, so I wouldn’t use it as a class read or suggest it to very young students.
It was fun and refreshing to read another magical tale set outside of the United States, and I would definitely recommend this one.