Review: Spirit Hunters

“Harper didn’t realize she’d walked into the room to take a closer look until she heard the door slam shut behind her. She whirled around, her heart beating loudly in her ears.” page 73

Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh.
Harper, HaperCollins, New York, 2017 (my edition 2018).
MG horror, 280 + excerpt.
Lexile: 680L .
AR Level: 4.7 (worth 7.0 points) .

Harper Raine is getting some seriously bad vibes from the creepy old house her family just moved into. She’s already upset about moving from NYC to DC, but now their house gets cold or hot in weird spots, has a haunted reputation, and her little brother is acting seriously weird…

Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh.

Much better than The Dragon Egg Princess – some parts still didn’t work for me, but overall I enjoyed this much more.

I’ve written before about how important it is to see realistic microaggressions in children’s literature, and here Oh does that well. A mere 20 pages in, an old white lady does the “no, where are you really from?” routine and brings in some Asian stereotyping too. Her mom intervenes in a politely passive-aggressive way that gets the point across.

An unusual thing Oh does though, is that later a neighborhood kid asks “where are you from?” in an innocent, where’d you move from, way – and Harper still braces herself until the meaning is fully clear. While I don’t love that this happens, I very much appreciated seeing it in a children’s novel. Oh makes it clear how that woman’s racism was not only harmful in their encounter, but also impacts Harper’s self esteem and her future meetings with others.

Harper makes a new best friend, Jamaican Dayo. I liked that her best friend was not white, because I am so tired of characters not having friends of other races. But her Jamaican-ness was mentioned nearly every time she appeared. Harper’s dad was I think intended to be coded as white, although that wasn’t so obviously repeated. In fact, other than the racist woman, probably her dad, and a few ghosts, most characters were not white.

This next paragraph contains spoilers and may be triggering to some.
Harper has been institutionalized, for reasons relating to ghosts. And then was highly traumatized there, leading to serious injuries that eventually got her de-institutionalized. Her dad is fully on her side, her mom loves her but is clearly feeling some kind of way about everything. Oh handles some things well – Harper’s been in intensive therapy, has migraines and memory loss, practices calming and de-escalation techniques. I don’t like that intensive out-of-home mental health care is constantly shown to young people in a solely negative light. That sets those children who may need it up for a less helpful experience. However, I also understand Oh didn’t create this trope, and she did include some realistic details of PTSD that were very appreciated.

Without getting too into spoilery details, Harper’s eventual attempt at exorcism utilizes advice from a Korean mudang, Catholic holy water, Buddhist bells, a chant, and salt circles which I think might be Wiccan? It was fascinating how Oh chose to combine different practices, and attributed all but the salt. Oh also draws attention to things like how cemetery segregation practices might affect ghost summoning.

Now for a few things I didn’t love. The parents are called by their first names. I know some families do this, but it felt weirdly done and took me a while to understand that Peter and Yuna were mom and dad. I also personally am not a big fan of horror, so this was scarier than I’d prefer.

This still had plot holes, although they were lacy instead of gaping. If Peter Raine is so terribly allergic, how was he suddenly able to safely drive the dog? How was there no consequence to a dog in his bedroom? Since Pumpkin was a small dog, the entire scene in chapter 11 felt off. Why specify having cookies with chocolate, which can cause sickness or death in canines, only do do something entirely different? It felt like a waste.

Horror just isn’t my genre, so I don’t know how to rate this for age appropriateness. So I’ll mention some of the (spoilery) scary stuff, and you can decide. Multiple children are possessed by multiple entities multiple times. Deaths both accidental and murderous. Our heroine is repeatedly injured and so are other children. Pets are badly hurt. Gaslighting and emotional manipulation occur. Poisoning, firestarting, exorcism, home remodeling, estranged families, racism, mediums, spiritualism, and more.

My children typically don’t start horror young, but I’ve had students read much worse even earlier, so I don’t have a baseline for “normal” horror reading at various ages. Although scary, the worst in this happens off-page, or isn’t described in gory detail.

Knowing there’s a sequel, I wonder how Oh could possibly up the horror. Horror series that circulated tended to have unrelated stories like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark or Goosebumps. It’s challenging to keep the terror going in a series focused on one character, but I will probably try reading the next one.

Overall, a much better showing.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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