Review of the Day: The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf
I was asked to do a presentation of children’s books under the banner of “Spooky Stories” for the Halloween season. There’s no counting the titles you can pull from, even if you limit yourself to the stuff published in the current year. Even so, whenever you make a list of books, no matter what the topic, it is imperative that you give it a critical eye and make sure you have a wide variety of perspectives, genders, races, etc. My list began with picture books, so I made sure to include The Bold Brave Bunny by Beth Ferry, illustrated by Chow Hon Lam. Hon lives in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, so that’s pretty cool. And on the older side I definitely wanted to include The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf. Hanna lives in . . . huh. Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. Yes, it seems that Malaysia’s the place to go this holiday season if you’re looking for supernatural creatures that go far beyond the usual zombies and vampires. Pelesits and polongs. Toyols and bajangs. But more than the bajang-civets, in this debut novel for kids Ms. Alkaf’s writing is the true star of the show. It lures you in with pretty words then wraps around your heart so that you never want to stop reading. Hand this book to children if you dare. You may not see their faces again until they have devoured every last page.
“The ghost knew his master was about to die, and he wasn’t exactly unhappy about it.” You wouldn’t be either if you were tied to a nasty witch. Yet that’s the lot of a pelesit. You are compelled to serve a witch, or members of a witch’s bloodline. So it is that this particular ghost discovers the witch’s delightful granddaughter, young Suraya, and the two become stalwart companions. She names him Pink. He swears to never leave her. Life is good. But as Suraya grows older, she discovers that there are definite downsides to supernatural companions. They can grow jealous of your friends. Vengeful of those they perceive to be your enemies. And worst of all, they can turn on you if they feel betrayed. Yet when a smiling pawing hantu comes, claiming he can get rid of Pink for good, Suraya must decide what is worth saving, who is worth trusting, and whether or not it really is true that fortune favors the bold.
What makes a great book for children? Depends on the age. The factors that make a great picture book don’t necessarily apply to older children’s fiction titles, after all. The Girl and the Ghost is a novel, so we’ll start there. Now I’ve read enough fantasies for kids, and enough award winners, and enough titles that kids actually enjoy (as opposed to the books their parents would prefer that they enjoy) that I think I’ve a rough estimation of the mix necessary to create the best possible book. If an author has enough talent to write a book that is, from the very get go, enticing and clever, with even just the barest nudge of humor, that’s a good start. If that author then mixes in beautiful writing and evokes settings without dwelling on them overtly, better still. And if that writer manages to pull off the most difficult part of this process, sinking their hooks into you emotionally, making you actually CARE about the characters, that’s the holy grail, my friends. That’s the golden ticket. And Hanna Alkaf has tickets galore.
I think it was the writing that drew me to her first. The first page of The Girl and the Ghost is marvelous. You’ll find it in the Prologue. It’s an interesting combination of fascinating details (ghosts that must serve humans are intrinsically interesting so you don’t have to do a lot of heavy lifting there), a good first sentence, and a couple choice turns of phrase like, “Watching her teeter slowly toward the end was a bit like watching a grape slowly become a raisin: the years had sucked the life and vitality out of her until she was nothing but a wrinkled shell of her former self.” I guess you’d have to be a pretty good writer to combine what we’d call the more literary elements of the book with outright pop culture. The TV show Friends, the Star Wars movies (even the bad ones), and Pokémon all make appearances on the page. The fact that the reader accepts them, never objects to them, and even welcomes them is remarkable. By all rights they should come across as annoying. Instead, they work within the context of the book. Every last one.
And then we cannot forget the villain of the piece. Encik Ali embodies that old phrase, “Beware the quiet ones,” and is a worthy adversary to someone as powerful as Pink. Reread this book, though, and you’ll see that Hanna telegraphs his coming early on. At the beginning of Chapter Ten you learn that Suraya, “had watched the animated movie Pinocchio exactly once, and then never again, because the bearded puppet master Stromboli, with his dark beard and his wild eyes, freaked her out and gave her nightmares for a week.” Little does she know that she’ll have her own puppet master to deal with before the book is over. And what a magnificent baddie he is too! About the time he’s licking blood from a knife, you want to turn and run for the high hills rather than get caught up in whatever it is he’s got in mind. I ask for a lot from the books I read, but if you give me nothing else, give me a bad guy worth cheering against. Encik Ali, I dub thee worthy.
All readers are hampered by being stuck as themselves. When I pick up a book written for children I can try to become that twelve-year-old girl I used to be back in the day, but it’s impossible. I’m a mom now and like it or lump it, I read books like a mom. So my relationship to the character of Pink (the pelesit) was decidedly mixed. When the ghost focused on Suraya as his new master, and then had to spend all of his waking energy keeping her from bodily injury, I wasn’t reading the book like a kid anymore. Instead I was commiserating with the ghost, particularly when the book said things like, “Once or twice more, he’d felt an overpowering urge to show himself to her, if only to tell her to STOP EATING THINGS SHE FOUND LYING ON THE GROUND.” Then the relationship shifts. It’s no longer parental, but it doesn’t have a true sense of equality either. When Pink turns his anger on Suraya, there is a dangerous moment when Suraya explains Pink’s violence towards her by saying, “I don’t think Pink’s evil, Mama. He just loves me too much.” And now I’m in her mother’s position, looking at a daughter in an abusive relationship, like she’s trying to justify it. It is for this reason that you find myself, as a reader, on the fence about Pink. That’s intentional, of course, but were I an editor I would have removed that line. “He just loves me too much.” It complicates, dangerously, a story that otherwise works on a variety of different levels. A fly in an otherwise perfect ointment.
In 2020 there is an abundance of grief in our middle grade books for child readers. Maybe it’s always that way. Maybe we’re just feeling it more keenly now than we usually would. Pain without purpose serves no good end. But pain mixed with humor and adventure, leading ultimately to a kind of catharsis not just for the characters but for the readers as well – that is something I think we could all use right now. Every child that has ever felt loneliness yearns, on some level, for a Pink of their own. We all do. It’s probably for the best that we don’t get one, but at least we can live vicariously through a book that shows in the most eloquent way possible how family trauma lives on, from generation to generation, taking shape, forming us one way or another. The elements that make a great novel for children aren’t difficult to understand. Hanna Alkaf has laid them out for you. Take what you need. Leave behind what you don’t. Enjoy to the fullest.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy borrowed from library for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy 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.
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