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A Fuse #8 Production
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Review of the Day: Trace by Pat Cummings

I feel like ghost stories don’t command the respect they used to. Can anyone seriously contest that they aren’t popular? When I was a kid, the Scholastic Book Club flyer always featured at least one Apple paperback that was ghost related. Inevitably written by a Willo Davis Roberts or a Mary Downing Hahn or a Betty Ren Wright, they were a consistent source of safe spooks. I trusted ghost stories. Loved them even. But these days no one’s really made a concentrated effort to create a creepy brand like that. Our creepy isn’t creepy anymore. Sure, you’ll get the occasional Lockwood & Company series, but that’s once in a blue moon. And so the 9-year-old inside of me waits, not so patiently, for new ghost stories all the time. Now Trace by Pat Cummings is probably too long and complex a book to have fit within that Apple paperback model of yore, but when it comes to hauntings, it ranks right up there with the best of them. If small sobbing ghosts and ancient fires sound like your cup of tea, add in a little jolt of trauma and you’ll find a friend in Trace.

What do you do when you see a ghost? Not a big scary sheet that flies around saying “Boo” or anything. More like a boy. A little boy, with a runny nose, who appears to only Chase. Chase knows a thing or two about death. His parents died pretty recently and now he lives in New York City with his cool Auntie Lea. This is new to him and new to her, and his problems aren’t being helped much by the appearance of this little ghost. For some reason it appears to him best inside the Main location of New York Public Library. To solve the mystery, Trace isn’t just going to have to go into the ghost’s history. He’s going to go into his own, and what he finds may be just what he needs.

Why do kids like ghost stories and why do adults? And is it for the same reasons at all? The danger with any ghost story is that it makes for a useful literary device. So when adults use ghosts, like in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it both fulfills our ancient fear of the unknown and provides a perfect metaphor. Now I’m not saying that Trace is the middle grade equivalent of Beloved, though there are certain similarities. Black family history. Personal tragedy. Ghost children. Overwhelming grief. But to her credit Pat Cummings also makes sure to put in plenty of the ghost stuff that kids want. Which is to say, the hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-going-up spookiness. There’s the initial appearance of the little ghost boy in the stacks. There’s an encounter in the library involving ghostly flames and heat. And then there are the more eerie moments. An old woman at a party showing up later in an ancient photograph. The reveal that Trace got out of a sinking car where every window and door was sealed closed. This isn’t a jump scare book. It’s more akin to the Twilight Zone than Poltergeist, but that doesn’t matter. If you write ghosts, kids will come.

Cummings makes the interesting choice of starting out the book with Trace as a pretty darn unlikeable kid. Sure, he’s been through trauma, but when you’re writing a novel, there’s an instinct to make your hero relatable right from the get-go. Cummings holds back a bit, at least at first. Trace is sinking, and he isn’t doing anything to save himself. You can hardly blame the other kids in his group project for disliking him since he’s been blowing off work for a while. But what’s the number one way to get an audience to identify with a character? Make them the subject of unfair treatment. So as more events conspire against Trace, you feel for him. And even as that happens, Cummings slowly reveals his backstory with a little piece here and a little piece there. Therapy sessions can make for dull reading, but they can also be magnificent expository delivery systems. Does Trace seem to recover a bit quickly from his own personal trauma in this story? You betcha. But at least you get the sense that he may still have some work to do in the future as well.

Confession: I have a personal connection to this book. That makes reviewing it a bit weird, but does it help at all that I didn’t remember the connection until I was done? Years ago I used to work in the main location of New York Public Library. For fun, I liked to show folks the “stacks” which is the fascinating interior and underground portions of the library where all the Reference books were kept. One of the people I showed around was author Pat Cummings, and along the way we got to talking about the old Colored Orphan Asylum. Pat had read somewhere that the library was built on top of the Asylum’s ashes, but any map will show you that this was impossible. Go into the depths of the library today and you can see the real structure that existed before the library came into existence: the reservoir. Those ancient stones provide the foundation for much of the library today. So as I read this and discovered that Pat had used some creative license to reposition the Asylum under the library, I was surprised. Unfortunately, the version of the book that I was reading didn’t include the Acknowledgments at the back, and I couldn’t very well critique the book if I didn’t have all of it in front of me. You can imagine my relief then when I got ahold of a final copy and read the very first lines in the Acknowledgment section where Pat declares the Asylum’s location in the book to be “not true”, following it up with, “But if you’ve ever visited the shadowy stacks below that Fifth Avenue landmark, it would be easy to believe that ghosts wander among its shelves of exiled books.” Smells nice too, by the way. No one ever mentions that.

Too often, ghosts get confined to countrysides. Meanwhile, you have places like New York City where the history just piles up on top of itself, year after year after year. In her Acknowledgments Cumming writes, “Reality is a slippery thing.” Nowhere is that more true than in the stories we tell about ourselves and about the ghosts of our past that continue to haunt us. With Trace, Ms. Cummings takes time to examine what we owe our ancestors, even as we try to live our daily lives. We live with their decisions, whether we want to or not, and sometimes we relive their mistakes. Reading this book, young readers will encounter a more thoughtful ghost story than those I downed so mindlessly in the past. It’s a ghost story that asks you to stop and listen to the voices that are dead but not gone. Who are the ghosts that haunt your story? And what are they trying to tell you?

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Notes on the Cover: Now I love the art of Pat Cummings. I consider her board book My Aunt Came Back to be one of the best ever written (and I’m still mad it’s out-of-print). But when I looked to see who did the jacket art for this book, you know whose name I saw? Erwin Madrid. And Erwin and Harper Collins together have made the very odd choice of representing Trace as an, at best, eight-year-old kid. What is this little child doing on the cover of this book? First off, as any children’s librarian will tell you, kids don’t like reading about children younger than they are. They’re constantly reading up, trying to prove how mature they are by downing the hottest YA title whenever they can. The Trace in this book kisses girls, drinks wine, and walks the city streets on his own. If the kid on this cover were to try to walk three blocks in Manhattan he’d be reported to the nearest precinct within minutes and ushered back home to his Auntie where she’d get a stern talking to about abandoning children. In a nutshell, I’m baffled by the publisher’s decision to make Trace look like such a tot. Better that he should look like the guy on the cover of Tight by Torrey Maldonado than the sweet-faced cherub seen here. Read the book. Ignore the hardcover jacket.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.