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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Ghost in the Well

We have one graphic novel on our current list of contendas. (Well, we wanted to consider Craig Thompson’s Habibi, too, but that was published for adults, which means it’s ineligible. Le sigh.) In any case, Anya’s Ghost is getting a lot of critical love (four starred reviews as of 9/1) and even has a blurb from Neil Gaiman!

The plot: Anya goes to a second-rate prep school and wants nothing more than to fit in. Well, if she could also snag adorable Sean as a boyfriend, she’d be great. And if she could lose a couple of pounds, that’d be fab. And if she could change her unpronounecable last name, life would be perfect. You know, she wouldn’t mind if people would stop associating her with Dima, another Russian immigrant at the school. And maybe if she had more friends than just Siobhan….but really, Anya’s a simple girl with simple wishes. Really. Until she falls down a well (long story, but you guys, it’s perfectly understandable!) and ends up with a new best friend: Emily, the ghost of a girl who mysteriously ended up down that well 90 years ago. We all know friendship’s difficult, but it’s even more complicated when your new best friend is dead.

This is a story that crept up on me; every time I go back to it, I find myself more enthusiastic about it. The black-gray-purple tones are rich and beguilingly spooky. They’re just a little tricky; if you’re not careful, you might think you’re reading a simple ghost story. Plus, you know, there’s the little matter of the actual ghost. In the story. But as you watch Anya investigate, you start to realize it’s not about the ghost’s mystery at all. In fact, the mystery is so quickly and easily solved that it just puffs away and all that’s left is the mess to deal with. You know, the hard stuff. The real stuff.

The art is the standout ingredient here. The nonverbal interactions are perfectly nailed, and as a result the characters are specific, interesting, and believable.

Life down in the well (pages 18 and 19). Used with permission from First Second.

For example, Anya’s progressive reaction to falling down the well is eloquent and hilarious — shocked to bored to shocked/terrified on seeing Emily to paranoid (pages 18-19). There are actually a ton of great nonverbal examples that flesh Anya out: her gleeful realization that a best ghost friend is awesome on page 80. Her determination to make things right after learning the truth about Emily (page 157, last panel). In the final confrontation with Emily, Anya’s body language practically tells the story without the dialogue. She’s flawed, funny, and fierce when she has to be.

The art and nonverbal exchanges serve minor characters well, too. The wordless conversation that flows underneath the dialogue between Anya and Liz at the party (pages 120-125) is understated but expressive.  You can practically see Liz writhe on the page in her embarrassment and anger. In that exchange, bit player Liz becomes human and relateable (I find myself wondering how she’s doing after the fact, actually). And Anya’s shock and mental recalibration (you can see the gears turning: Liz is beautiful, Liz is popular, Liz is…NOT PERFECT…?) is subtle but a powerful moment. 

Anya’s complicated relationship with her family rings true, too. She is so easily exasperated with both her mother and brother…but is just as quick to defend them when necessary. Both mom and Sascha don’t get much screen time, but Brosgol makes their characters feel like interesting people and you root for Anya to protect them when they need it.

Oh, man, and I just realized my favorite (silly) moment in the book: the interaction between Anya and the headmaster at the end. He gets, like, 5 lines, and they’re all dead on. I can hear him in my head. I can picture exactly how he runs off to advise the crew: “Do we want arthritis?” Every character gets that much detail. They all have that much personality. Really!

Life outside of the well (page 101). Used with permission from First Second.

And we should probably talk about Emily. Emily’s version of falling into the well and dying is memorable: evocative and creepy, and it triggered my sympathy as a reader (page 91). It’s an important moment for her because she’s, well, not all that likable ultimately. But those last few human moments, as her eyes slowly but inevitably close…so powerful. So haunting. And once you know the whole story, going back and picking out what are probably the moments of truth from her account is heart wrenching.

In fact, the few times in the story where you sense you’re getting a genuine reaction from Emily are really effective on reread. Sure, she’s evil and mean and bossy and creepily manipulative and actually just a dead, gross skeleton…but. But! She doesn’t want to be left behind in the well. She’s ecstatic once she’s out — and who wouldn’t be? She’s excited to read a fashion magazine and learn her body type (a ruler!). Those few moments are extremely powerful when you’re reading with hindsight. 

There’s a lot to like about this book, and it’s easily a personal favorite of mine this year. But there are a lot of books that do well with critics, are loved by readers, and yet miss out on the big medal. Will Anya’s Ghost be in the Final Five? I’m going with a cautious…maybe? But I’d love to hear what you guys have to say!

About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.


  1. The art is excellent, many of the characters are wonderful, and the premise is great. But I didn’t think Anya was challenged enough, especially at the end, or that the story delivered the sort of depth that the beginning promised. Once it’s clear Emily is evil and Anya needs to protect her family, the plot denouement is linear. Anya discovers her strength too easily, given the complexity of her insecurities in the beginning; Emily is too easy to resist; the magic is not rich enough; I wanted more temptation. This doesn’t stop me from being a total fan: I thought it was an outstanding debut, and a delightful book, and I’m eager to see where Vera Brosgol takes us next. But this isn’t her Printz yet.

  2. My expectations for this one were very high, and while I enjoyed Anya’s Ghost it didn’t wow me. I do love the illustrations and the authors deciding to make the ghost evil was a very nice touch. above Elizabeth said everything I felt but didn’t know how to say. I While this is classifield as YA I thought it skewed a little young for the Printz.

    If someone put Anya’s Ghost and TenNapel’s Ghostopolis and asked me which one was YA. I would say Ghostopolis.

  3. That’s interesting, because I see Ghostopolis as having much more appeal for a younger crowd than Anya’s Ghost. I think the wacky ghost world characters are interesting and funny for as young as elementary school, even if they miss some of the deeper themes, whereas I don’t think they would be as pulled into the parties/sex & boys/fitting in storylines of Anya’s Ghost. The ending is creepy and lovely but so much of it seemed like a fairly standard immigrant/outsider high school story–well done, but not as original as other books.

  4. Sarah Couri says

    Elizabeth — on my first read, I was ready to say almost exactly what you said about the ending (too simple, too easy for Anya). But when I reread it and was looking at it less like a magic-ghost-friendship-story and more of a regular-girl-friendship-story, I revised my opinion. The ability to be so self aware is complicated and hard — and felt like the right challenge for Anya.

    The magic of dead Emily *isn’t* very compelling, but I’d argue it’s because it’s not *really* that kind of story; it just looks like it at first. I don’t think it’s a story about the temptation of having a magic best friend, I think it’s a story about the temptation of having a toxic best friend.

    But like I said, that was on reread; it could be that I’ve overthought the whole thing! From where I’m sitting, I think it depends on what sort of story the committee determines it to be.

  5. Sarah, I love that interpretation of toxic friendship! I still think that in every story the main character has to stumble more once we know what her goal is (Franny B. taught me this, actually). It’s not as interesting to read without the tension of a mistake, and the real possibility that she might fail in trying to extricate herself from this friendship. This could have been achieved with more complex magic (although I think Brosgol tried this by increasing Emily’s strength…it just wasn’t enough), or by a blunder or backsliding to temptation on Anya’s part, or an unforeseen act of a third party that screws things up. There’s also a flatness to Anya seeing her friend so clearly for what she was so soon, and not keeping some of the attraction she had for her right up until the end. It needed a little more twistiness to be fully satisfying. But I hate to say any of this because the book is wonderful.

    • Sarah Couri says

      Elizabeth — I’m so sorry to reply so many days later! But I did want to reply, for a couple of reasons. First because I think we’re both discussing this out of a genuine sense of enthusiasm for the book (even though we have somewhat different conclusions), and second because if I were at the table, I would reply (though hopefully in a more timely fashion!).

      And I see what you are saying. I do! And it could be that I am all tied up in my own head (see our baggage post) because this is a book that, the more I thought about it, the more I related to it). I really am open to that possibility, I promise. However, I don’t think I’m saying this all that well, so I will try once more. 🙂

      For me, it would have been very expected for the plot to follow the arc that you describe — for Anya to be more tempted, for Anya to be more tested by something outside of herself. That’s why I was initially let down by my first read. But when I looked at the book we do have, rather than the book I expected, I realized that the ending was the opportunity for Anya to make some very tough revelations — to herself as well as to Emily — about the choices she was making in life. The ending, where there are no outside temptations, is instead about personal reflection for Anya and a chance to really take responsibility for the state of relationships in her life. For me, that was sufficiently challenging. Also, I don’t think it was entirely about seeing Emily clearly; it was about seeing herself clearly. And through seeing herself more honestly, Anya was able to better understand Emily. I guess because part of the way I understand the idea of toxic friendship is that both parties contribute to it. And the way to end it is to really be honest with yourself about what sort of friendship-output you are, um, putting out. It felt to me that Anya finally leveled with herself, and that felt huge.

      Somehow, on reread for me, the lack of twistiness in the end actually became a strength of the book. However: caveat baggage personal reaction, etc etc!

  6. Cool writeup!

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