A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander, illustrated by Kelly Murphy.
Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2017, my paperback edition 2018.
MG fantasy, 184 pages plus excerpt.
Lexile: 640L .
AR Level: 4.6 (worth 5.0 points) .
Rosa Diaz has been training her whole life to one day be a librarian specializing in ghost appeasement, so she’s disgusted when her mother moves them to the only unhaunted place in the world. Jasper Chevalier has always lived in Ingot and never seen a ghost, so when one appears his world turns upside down. Can these unlikely friends solve the mystery of their oddly unhaunted hometown before it turns on them?
The mythology and worldbuilding of this is extensive. Alexander has imagined an entire alternate universe where ghosts are a normal part of everyday life and always have been, outside of Ingot, at least. The way he uses Ingot to introduce us to this world is clever – Jasper gasps at everything and Rosa is constantly annoyed or saddened by the small differences between Ingot and the properly haunted places that she’s used to living. This then gives Alexander a reason to constantly be telling us all those little details that build up into a coherent alternate world.
Both kids have unique family situations. As the only child of two founders, Jasper is the lead of the ren faire kid pack. Rosa is something that doesn’t quite exist in our world, perhaps a cross of homeschooled and army brat? She’s comfortable with every kind of ghost, but less familiar with people. Her knowledge is excellent but scattered, based on the books she’s been reading and had interest in. As the child of appeasement librarians, she has always lived in libraries and had a much different upbringing than Jasper.
Another refreshing aspect of this book is that both leads are POC. Rosa is Latina. Jasper’s father is Black although partway through the book we learn that his mother is white, making this a rare book with a biracial MC that is not about being biracial. There are white characters too, but our heroes are primarily of color.
I’ve wondered about this author; he’s known for writing middle grade speculative fiction duologies with non-white heroes before that was trendy. His biography states that he is Cuban-American.
Normally novels in two voices are not my favorite – it’s simply too hard to have balance between the main characters. But Alexander not only strikes a good balance between the two, he also does well writing both genders. I’m very taken with his ability to simultaneously craft a believable fantasy world, memorable cast of characters, and interesting plot. Having read this twice already (as is my custom with almost all fiction reviewed on this blog), I am actually wishing I had time for a third reread just to examine the technical aspects of Alexander’s writing.
The ghosts were well done also – the perfect blend of spooky and interesting, without being too much for middle grade. Their reasoning for wanting in to Ingot, as well as the backstory behind the town, was fascinating and well spun out over the course of the story. The plot was very tight. Knowing that there was a sequel, I expected a bit more of a cliff-hanger at the end, but the story reached a natural conclusion without too many loose threads.
I enjoyed this book, but it read more like a standalone than the start of a series. The main problems were mostly neatly wrapped up by the end of the book. There was only one point left unresolved and that doesn’t seem like something that would fill a whole novel alone. Since I know Alexander has already published a sequel, I’m curious to see how it will stand up to this one. But whether read alone or not, this was an enjoyable story with two non-white leads and a nicely detailed world. Recommended.