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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.
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!
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.
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