Roaring Book Press, August, 2017 531 pages
Graphic Novel Hybrid/Horror
Alternating stories tell the tales of two girls in different times, yet the same place, finally merging at the end. Mary's story from 1982 is told in a diary format, while present day Ella's is told through images. Mary's diary traces her misery, loneliness and fear living in an orphanage, alone on the top floor, while being tortured by a bully. Through her isolation Mary has discovered a love of puppets and dolls, which she lovingly creates and who become her only friends. Because of the dysfunction of her past, Mary suffers from select mutism and is unable to tell anyone the extent of the abuse. Mary is a drawn and seemingly unlikable child, who has an affinity for Mary from the Secret Garden and also finds a hidden garden behind the orphanage, which becomes her solace. When the orphanage decides to close, all of the girls are relocated. The last to go are Mary and her tormentor. Drastic measures must be taken before its too late. Meanwhile, present-day Ella and her father, having recently lost her mother, move into a new house next door to the creepy and abandoned old orphanage. Feeling lonely in a new house and missing her mother, Ella feels inexplicably drawn to the dilapidated mansion and on a scouting missions discovers Mary's secret garden and one of her dolls. Mary repairs the doll and returns it to the garden. Why is there a light in the attic room in a building where no one has lived in thirty-five years? And who is the mysterious and wispy figure floating around the garden? An investigation draws Ella to the truth and the discovery of a new friend.
Wow! What a creepy and cool book! Told in the style associated with Brian Selznik, telling two stories using different formats, Smy creates a much different mood, more Graveyard Book than Wonderstruck. A true ghost story, Smy doesn't pull-punches or offer a Disney-esque ending. The abuse and neglect suffered by Mary is hard-core and will draw empathy out of the reader, as will the grief and loneliness experienced by Ella. I kept expecting things to turn out okay by the end; that maybe Mary is a long-lost aunt of Ella's who comes to save the day. Things don't end pretty, but they do end satisfying. I loved the ending and kept turning pages rapidly to get there. Definitely not for sensitive kids, fans of the creepy and macabre will love it. I would have loved it as a kid and found it delicious now as an adult. As with Selznik's work, don't let the 500+ pages throw you. The book reads quickly within a few hours. I also love the dolls and puppets, both as substitute friends and as a further creepy element. The Secret Garden references may act as an incentive to encourage kids to read the original and further highlight the difference between the happy endings of traditional children's stories verses stark reality. Both boys and girls will enjoy this story and the cover is invitingly atmospheric to draw readers in, yet doesn't feature the girl characters to scare off boys. The black and white illustrations are expertly drawn, add to the mood of the story, and blend seamlessly with the other plot. Black pages separate the two narratives as the book continues. A well crafted gen of a book just waiting for the brave kind of reader who appreciates getting their spine tingled. Unfortunately, Thornhill will not be officially published until August, but keep it on your radar. It's worth the wait.