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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist – OPHIE’S GHOSTS by Justina Ireland

Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Emily Joan Smith

12-year-old Ophelia Harrison’s father wakes her in the middle of the night, instructing her to grab her mother and go hide in the woods. They are in 1920s rural Georgia, where a lynch mob is headed toward their home—but, Ophie learns the next morning, her father had already been murdered by the time he showed up to warn Ophie.

Ophie and her mother flee to the North, where they move in with distant relatives in Pittsburg, where Ophie begins to see ghosts everywhere. She and her mother begin work as domestics at Daffodil Manor, a sprawling mansion home to the awful Mrs. Caruthers, her son Richard, and a large cast of ghosts. 

Ophie’s Aunt Rose quickly surmises that Ophie shares the family trait of being able to communicate with the dead. She begins to instruct her, warning her that ghosts are selfish shells of the people they once were. She warns Ophie never to trust ghosts…but Ophie feels differently. When Clara, a ghost at Daffodil Manor, seems to offer Ophie help and even friendship, Ophie decides to find out what happened so that she can put Clara to rest.

As a historical fiction ghost story with a strong element of detective mystery and a thrilling climax involving possession and murder, OPHIE’S GHOSTS holds appeal for a variety of upper middle grade readers. 

Engaging vignettes at the end of some chapters break from Ophie’s perspective and shift to the perspective of various settings, such as trolley cars and the Manor. In this way, author Justina Ireland personifies settings, elevating them to the status of characters.

Perhaps Ireland’s greatest strength is the manner in which she expertly weaves in historical content that many parents and teachers shy away from discussing with children. Employing ghosts, Ireland effectively conveys the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow, and lynching, calling upon these painful truths in a way that is appropriately terrifying and nonetheless approachable for its intended young audience. 

Painful truths figure prominently in this story, a theme that emerges as Ophie wants to do the right thing, but struggles with the question of when it is right to be dishonest.

Ghosts, it seemed, were like painful truths—you could ignore them, try to keep them secret, but sooner or later, they were going to come out, for better or worse.

p 278

The Newbery committee has not typically favored horror stories, but perhaps this one will break that trend with its vivid settings, unflinching approach toward painful history, and universal themes.

Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Please start with positive observations first; stick to positives until at least three comments have been posted or we reach 1:00 pm EST. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!

Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at


  1. Aryssa Damron says

    This one had been on my radar, but I was blown away by how much MORE it was than just a ghost story. The way Ireland weaved this lesser-known historical moment into a middle grade story felt very Newbery-esque to me. Weaving in the racism and the way people like Ophie and her mother were treated, the element of the hold house and a looming mystery–I really enjoyed it on audio, read by Bahni Turpin!

    • I also listened to the audiobook, and found it very well done!

      Kids at my library are often asking for scary books, and this has a great spooky vibe, and a well-plotted mystery, AND a great setting and strong characters. This is definitely one of my favorites this year!

  2. Lisa Levin says

    I love this new type of historical fantasy, which combines two popular genres. Ophie’s Ghost was definitely one of my favorites! My high 5th and 6th graders love it too! The story’s beginning grips the reader from the first page, reminding me of ‘The Graveyard’ by Gaiman. The historical content is definitely weaved in so nicely while adding that bit of fantasy with Ophie speaking to the dead. I felt she was a strong character that I felt endeared to from beginning to end. This was an excellent read that I couldn’t put down.

  3. Megan Howes says

    So many wonderful things about this book! I loved the look into what a lot of Black people experienced at this time, and I am happy that Ireland went into such depth of how society worked not just between white people and Black people, but even Black people that were seen as passing and those who were not. It was great how realistic Ireland was about the reality of life for Ophie and her mother, and honest about the hardships and prejudices a lot of Black Americans went through ( and still go through today). I am really happy that this was not a story of how they moved North, and found a little bit of peace and freedom from being there because life was a little bit “better” up there . The supernatural and mystery elements of this book were also really well-done, and it did not distract from the main theme of a Black family trying to carry their grief and adjust to a different life without a father. So happy I finally read this one!

  4. Stephanie Saggione says

    I recommend this one to fifth graders a lot- there is so much to enjoy and learn about. Students who look for scary stories are eager to try this one and I am happy to give it out knowing that the book is so much more than just “scary”. Ireland’s YA book, Dread Nation, was excellent and it is wonderful to see her reach a younger audience. And students are immediately drawn in by Vashti Harrison’s beautiful cover!

  5. Rox Anne Close says

    This book was spooky, but not incredibly scary or gory, even though the racism depicted in these pages was very real. I learned so much about the historical aspects of life in the 1920’s and this book showed many of the unspoken rules that blacks must follow to function in a white world.
    The setting was so vivid and descriptive in this book, that I could picture every room in Daffodil Manor. I was intrigued with how Ireland personified the Manor, the attic, the trolley and the Rose Garden. But what really pulled me in was the secrets that Daffodil Manor was keeping within its walls, and the strong characters such as Richard and Mrs. Caruthers, Clara, Aunt Rose, Penelope and especially Ophie, who time and time again continue to be the better person.

  6. Aryssa Damron says

    I had to catch myself from being “mad” at Ophie for not realizing Clara was a ghost at first, and kept saying “This is a book for children. It’s okay that you, an adult, saw that coming from a mile away.” haha

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      That’s a good reminder, Aryssa, about how our adult reading experience can affect the way we experience and evaluate children’s books. For a child reader, that plot device of not identifying a ghost as a ghost right away could be completely new and have a bigger impact on how they respond to the plot. When we’re evaluating for things like Mock Newbery, we have to keep that in mind (in our “critic” role), even when we might be absorbed in the story (in our “reader” role).

  7. Andrea Tyler says

    I really enjoyed this book. Part mystery, part ghost story, part historical fiction, what’s not to love?? I really liked the fact that the story dealt with heavy, complex subjects such as segregation and slavery, but done in an accessible way that younger readers can read and understand without being too graphic. This was just a fun and easy read that many young readers will enjoy and recommend.

  8. Emily Joan Smith says

    I wrote the intro for this book, so I obviously loved it, but here one problem I had with it: Did anyone else feel that the mean aunts and cousin weren’t at all developed? I always tell my student that a well-written villain has something sympathetic about them. The aunt and cousins tortured Orphie for seemingly no reason.

  9. Tamara DePasquale says

    This was an entertaining read. It was a good ghost story that I will happily recommend to students who often ask for a book that is scary but not too scary! That said, I do not think it rises to the level of a Newbery. Nothing stands out for me as being particularly remarkable or distinguished. I struggled mostly with the pacing and found the chapters that personified the trolley, the house, the attic, and the city out of sync with the flow of the story.

  10. Darlene Hyman says

    I listen to a lot of audio books while working, and just started Ophie’s Ghosts today. This book is not only wonderful for kids (ghosts, mystery, and interesting history) but a great story for this mid-60s gal! This book makes ne feel like I’m right along with Ophie! I can see a movie come out of this. VERY well written! I love this story. Keep ’em coming please.

  11. Louie Lauer says

    I thought this was a great example of how historical and fantasy can work really well together. The inclusion of the fantasy element was a really unique way to introduce the lingering legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow era in U.S. History. My only criticism was in regard to pacing. This book lost a little bit of steam for me in the end and I thought that the ending might have been a little too neatly tied up. However, this is for my adult taste. My guess is that would not bother a younger reader.

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