Suddenly Supernatural: School Spirit
By Elizabeth Cody Kimmel
Little Brown and Company
On shelves June 1, 2008
So I’m on a plane ride from Seattle to New York and wouldn’t you know it but I don’t bring enough books to read. Under normal circumstances I have a problem with overstocking my purse with reading material. This time the opposite is true. So I pull out anything I happen to have on hand, and most of it is simply terrible. I’m alternating between bad crazy books and bad depressing books in an effort to simply make the time go faster when I remember that a literary agent I know, who happens to be taking the same flight as me, gave me Suddenly Supernatural not a day before. She had assured me that it was great, which I took with a grain of salt or two. Of course the book’s agent is going to think it’s the best single thing since sliced bread. No surprises there. But the pickings are slim and my flight has been delayed another hour and a half (thank YOU, Delta). I decide to give the book a go. As a children’s librarian I’ve trained myself to look for certain qualities in my fiction for kids. Is it interesting? Is it good? Does it fall into the usual trips, traps, and snares common to the genre? But to my amazement this book sucks me in instantly. With a rare combination of readability and genuine middle school trials and tribulations, author Elizabeth Cody Kimmel gives a well-placed kick to a genre that deserves a little rejiggering here and a little remastering there. A book I can honestly recommend to any kid looking for some great ghostly fare.
Seventh grader Kat has a situation on her hands. First of all, her mother’s a medium. "And I don’t mean the kind that fits in between small and large." Rather she’s the kind of person who contacts ghosts and spirits for a living. Kat’s never really had a problem with this job in the past, though certainly it would be more restful if her mom sought employment in another occupation. No, it’s not until Kat realizes that she herself is beginning to see ghosts everywhere that she starts freaking out. It’s not as if she’s the most popular girl at school to begin with, and now she has to keep from talking or even noticing the dead people floating all around her? Thank you, but no. Fortunately Kat’s just made a new friend at school with secrets of her own and the two of them are getting wrapped up in a mystery involving a dead student, a music program, and an old woman who has carried a blanket of shame with her for over forty years. This middle school medium may not want to bring her powers to class, but it’s clear that there’s a reason they’re there, and nothing’s going to change that.
There are plenty of books out there that use supernatural metaphors to describe middle school and puberty. Buffy the Vampire Slayer did it on television with vampires. Dusssie by Nancy Springer gave menstruation a medusa-inspired twist. Even Perry Moore’s Hero was able to equate superpowers with coming out of the closet. The Suddenly Supernatural books are, in a sense, quieter fare than any of these. Kat hits puberty and suddenly she can see and hear ghosts. And like any teen or tween faced with the unnatural or weird, her instinct is to ignore her powers or do whatever it is that she can to cover them up and seem to be like everyone else. As she herself says, “I’m just not sure how to deal with it. I don’t know what’s expected of me. I’m in seventh grade, remember. Where you’re supposed to spend every waking hour trying to be normal.” The narrative is told entirely in the first person and you grow very fond of Kat and her inner struggle. Subplots involving conniving popular girls and the like keep the story moving, but really it’s Kat’s relationship with her new friend Jac that maintains the reader’s interest. When it all comes down to it, I really felt that the book held together well. It certainly works in different plot points and subplots to a satisfying conclusion. Some rote middle school elements are there, sure, but what Kimmel chooses to do with them is solid and original.
At heart, the story has a lot in common with M. Night Shymalan’s Sixth Sense. Yet one difference between the two is the fact that Kat’s mother is a medium and it’s not as if she is without support and help along the way. Again, it’s the relationships that really shine through in this tale. Kat’s mom is warm and lovely. One of those rare not dead/not villainous mothers you encounter in children’s literature once in a bright blue moon. Now with its subtitle firmly in place, I was pretty sure that this book was the first in a series. This feeling was later reinforced when Kat encounters a malevolent force that neither explains itself nor, for that matter, does much of anything except look threatening in the book. Clearly Kimmel has more adventures of her mini medium in store for her fans.
Of course, the book series is going to be hampered if Kimmel continues to include an overabundance of pop culture references like the ones found in this book. About the time I got to the mention of “the latest marriage of Tori Spelling” is started to cringe. A title like this, marketed correctly and creating a strong audience, could easily go through several reprints and reissues as long as it remains timeless. The pop culture tidbits don’t really gel with the rest of the book anyway. I don’t see Kat as just another consumer, so it feels weird to see mentions of this sort scattered throughout the text (though I’d admit to enjoying one boy’s performance of a “monologue” slash vomitfest from the documentary Super Size Me).
I know the audience for this book because I once was the audience. Back in the 80s I was one of those girls that couldn’t get enough ghost stories in my diet. I think that I personally sustained the careers of authors like Willo Davis Roberts and Mary Downing Hahn through a steady purchase of Apple paperbacks (via Scholastic book fairs, of course). Often I get girls at my reference desk desperate for a new ghost story. And while Hahn still corners the market on fabulous scare fare, Kimmel is clearly going to carve out a niche for herself. With its sympathetic heroine, great characters, and cool concept, Kimmel takes an idea that could have been very rote and familiar and breathes new life into it. This is ghostly fare for girls who love books like Shug and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. A rare genre to plumb, but a genre just the same.
On shelves June 1st.
Misc. Note That Doesn’t Really Fit With the Rest of This Review: For the record, the name “Kat” was also the character name of Christina Ricci in the movie Casper. Apparently it has ghostly connotations.
Other Blog Reviews: Practically Paradise and Mr. Thatcher’s Class (aw)