Flashback Fridays: Of all the forces in the universe, the hardest to overcome is the force of habit . . .
You’re just a kid who sometimes has strange things happen to them. But this latest bit is sort of wild–there are dead people in the cemetery talking to you. They aren’t creepy or dangerous, they’re just ordinary people, except, well, dead of course . . .
Do you remember:
Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett (Corgi Childrens, c1993)
Johnny Maxwell is an odd kid whose family is going through troubling times. They live in a small town in the U.K. called Blackbury. There’s a cemetery in town, an old, mostly forgotten one that Johnny likes to wander by. But suddenly he sees dead people. And talks to them to. The dead in this cemetery aren’t frightening or anything–they’re just ordinary people who once lived in Blackbury. And they’re alarmed when they find out their cemetery is about to be destroyed in the name of progress and “Bright Futures.” They want Johnny and his friends to help.
And so begins a most unusual ghost story. Where ghosts teach the living about the power of history, memory and legacy and learn in turn that there’s more to life than death and cemeteries. And that sometimes it’s essential to break the rules. Sometimes habits are all that keep us pinned down.
Back in 1997 wandering around Oxford this was one of the very first Terry Pratchett books I encountered, and I still have a great deal of love and fondness for it. Johnny is pretty much every boy. He’s well-meaning, has some odd quirks and strange stuff happen to him, but he’s still pretty ordinary. He’s got his friends, and a family going through troubles that he’s trying to avoid. He’s not a chosen one or a secret heir. He’s just Johnny. But Johnny sees ghosts. His friends are disappointed they aren’t spooky zombies like you’d find in the Thriller video. But they get on board with helping him through yet another adventure. (Last time it was a video game that featured real aliens).
A lot of the residents of the cemetery are eager to talk to him and find out what’s gone on in the world since they died. All except for Mr. Grimm who constantly warns them about breaking the rules and doing things that are improper. Johnny slowly uncovers the history of the people buried in the cemetery–becoming more and more invested in their stories and what it means to Blackbury–the real Blackbury and not the gray town it’s becoming. He sees the real evil in this story:
Real dark forces… aren’t dark. They’re sort of gray, like Mr. Grimm. They take all the color out of life; they take a town like Blackbury and turn it into frightened streets and plastic signs and Bright New Futures and towers where no one wants to live and no one really does live. The dead seem more alive than us. And everyone becomes gray and turns into numbers and then, somewhere, someone starts to do arithmetic…”
It’s evil in the classic Sir Terry mode. The evil of negating humanity. The evil of treating people as things–that’s what Johnny is fighting. But while the kids are fighting to save the cemetery, the ghosts are realizing that the cemetery has grown too small for them. They are curious, they are wondering and interested and excited again. And so they finally break the rules and leave the boundaries of the cemetery. And they discover they were never meant to stay at all–that there is a beyond to explore and travel and continue in–and only fear and habit was holding them back. It’s something that reminds that every life has meaning, and that the past still matters, so long as it informs us in the present.
It’s a great book, and it inspired a TV miniseries in 1995. Sir Terry wrote two other books in the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy. The first was Only You Can Save Mankind (1992) and the third is J0hnny and the Bomb (1996) .
If you’ve never heard of Sir Terry Pratchett, I can only say I hope you will discover him. He is by far and away one of my favorite writers and has many titles for readers to discover. Some for children, and many more for adults. His quirky humor and dry observations are ultimately balanced by a sense of heart, profundity and poignancy that can turn a funny book into one that makes you tear up and cry–or realize why you’re alive.
You’re a group of kids who fall into a small-town mystery when you hear mysterious noises in an old opera house. Strange clomping and whinnying noises haunt the rooms, but what does it mean?
Do you remember:
Ghost Horse Mystery by DJ Arneson and Tony Tallarico (Watermill Press, c1981)
I think we all have a few books we encountered in our lives as kids–books that maybe we picked up at yard sales, or trade in book fairs. I have a few like that. But one in particular that I picked up in fourth grade from a book fair where everyone brought in old books to sell for a fund raiser. I think I paid ten cents for the book. I bought it because of the cover and title of course (though I was a little disappointed in the fact it wasn’t a unicorn). Fourth grade, unicorn obsessed me was also a mystery fan with a tendency to read anything that landed in my hands. So this short paperback joined my small collection of personally owned books.
It tells the story from the first person perspective of Andy, a young man living in the small town of Montville. He and his teenage friends are hanging out in an old opera house when they first encounter the mysterious noises. They investigate, but can’t find an explainable reason for the noises. Before long, they’re actually seeing the ghostly vision of a horse. Blaze appears to be enlisting the teens help in uncovering a greedy plot to hide the truth of a will . . . and gain revenge on the men behind it.
The story’s fairly spartan in descriptions and any sort of back story for our protagonists. It’s also an odd book in that it mimics the older, 1950s style stories, but was published in the 1980s. The teenage characters would imply a more YA audience, but like Nancy Drew, the subject matter and mystery keep the content purely middle-grade. I don’t think it’s a great example of either mystery or ghost stories, but I have a fondness for it, since I read it right around the time I was tearing through Nancy Drew, and I did love the ghostly horse that was a main character. I’m pretty sure I had an imaginary ghost horse following me around for a few weeks after that. It’s got some lines in it that did have me a little flummoxed this time around when reading. One that stood out was “Double Christmas. I wish I was an ant.”
I guess I keep hold of the copy to remind me that I can have an attachment and get enjoyment out of books that may not be the most well-written or sensational stories. And this holds true of other young readers today–my tastes and critiques have become extremely discerning simply because I’ve read so many things. Once you have a lot of literature to compare a book to, it changes how you encounter it. But kids still discovering books and reading may find themselves reading and loving a worn out paperback they picked up somewhere–uncaring of what the masses may think of it, or how well it was reviewed.
What are some of your old encounters? Comments welcome!
So here’s at least one more 2015 list–books taking place in alternate histories! This is where the story takes place in a world that is almost our own, but events are changed, maybe magic is added and everything is just a bit different from our reality.
A Riddle in Ruby by Kent Davis (Greenwillow, September 2015)
In an alternate steampunk history full of strange mechanical creatures, mysterious magic and warring factions young Ruby finds her life turned upside down when it turns out that everyone is suddenly hunting for her. Adventure, amazing world-building and great fun.
The Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud (Disney-Hyperion, September 2015)
Book three in the Lockwood & Co. series, this paranormal alternate history sets us in a Britain where progress has come to a halt due to some kind of paranormal event that has left hauntings and the undead of every kind lurking in the night. An alternate history ghostbusters with plenty of dark deeds, paranormal baddies in this creepy thriller/mystery. I haven’t gotten to read this one yet, but look forward to doing so. (Love the cover.)
The Buccaneer’s Code by Caroline Carlson (HarperCollins, September 2015)
Another Book 3, this one in The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series. Young Hilary Westfield lives in a version of Britain where the world has all sorts of small magics alongside everyday life. Now the Enchantress is enlisting Hilary to help her in a final battle against Captain Blacktooth for the Presidency of the League.
My Diary from the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson (Aladdin, Expected Publication November 2015)
Gracie Lockwood lives in a world where dragon migration is a normal thing, where merfolk hunt the shoreline and dark clouds come for people when they’re about to die. Gracie’s father believes there’s a world out there much like their own, but without the monsters and magic, and without the foreboding dark clouds. So when starts appearing on the horizon, the family goes on an epic trip across the country to and to the edges of the world itself to try and find a way to that other world . . .
Second Guard by J. D. Vaughn (Disney-Hyperion, April 2015)
Admittedly, this takes place in the fictional kingdom of Tequende, where the rulers are part of a matriarchal line and all second children must serve the Kingdom for a set number of years, either as servants or as fighters. But there’s evidence that outside this kingdom lies somewhere in Europe, with other, more familiar countries nestled around it. While that doesn’t come up much in the story, it still counts as alternate history in my book!
School for Sidekicks by Kelly Mccullough (Feiwel & Friends, August 2015)
Evan Quick has always dreamed of being a superhero, just like the real superheroes that live in his world. But when his dreams come true he finds out that maybe being a superhero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Especially when you’re stuck as a sidekick. An alternate time-travel history full of superheroes that’s lots of fun to read, although I’ll be waiting to find out more in the sequel!
Lilliput by Sam Gayton, illustrated by Alice Ratterree (Peachtree Publishers, August 2015)
In this version of Victorian London, Gulliver is a real person. He has stolen a Lilliputian child away from her home as physical proof of his discoveries. That child is young Lily, and she refuses to stay caged. A mixture of Swift and steampunk along with some very real London backdrops help to make this a solidly engaging adventure!
The Courage of Cat Campbell by Natasha Lowe (Simon & Schuster, January 2015)
A companion volume to the author’s previous title: The Power of Poppy Pendle, this story follows the exploits of Poppy’s daughter, Cat. Unlike her magic-averse mother who only ever wanted to bake, Cat yearns to be magical and go to a magic school. But can she convince her mother to let her pursue her dreams? In this alternate history magic academy’s are a regular part of society and being a powerful magic user is considered to be quite the thing.
Fires of Invention by J. Scott Savage (Shadow Mountain, September 2015)
Trenton Colman lives in the city of Cove, a city inside a mountain where the inhabitants are forbidden to tinker and invent new things. The citizens are supposed to stick to the ways and machines handed down from the Founders, but Trenton can’t help tinkering. Mysterious clues around the city lead Trenton into deeper forbidden territory, but he’s too caught up to stop now. Especially when what he’s uncovering may lead him to clues about the truth of Cove itself. This steampunk fantasy is definitely an alternate history, but I can’t really reveal how without giving the story away–so you’ll just have to find out for yourself!
The Ire of Ironclaw by Kersten Hamilton, illustrated by James Hamilton (Clarion Books, July 2015)
The second book in the Gadgets and Gears steampunk series. Boy inventor Wally and his daring dog Noodles are off on another adventure. This time they’ll be aboard a dirigible with the famous Nikola Tesla facing all sorts of wild events and dangers to finally confront old enemies once again. This turn of the century alternate history series is great fun, especially since our first person narrator is Noodles himself.
So there’s my ten! Any more to add? Please comment with the titles!