Thornhill, by Pam Smy
I wouldn't be particularly surprised to see Thornhill challenged at some point—as middle grade Gothics go, it's creepy as all get-out, AND the darkness it engages with is so believable and true-to-life that it very definitely falls into the TOO MUCH FOR SOME ADULT READERS category.
But, as usual, I'm getting ahead of myself.
Thornhill is the story of two girls: Ella, in our time, and Mary, in 1982. Ella's story is almost entirely wordless, told through illustrations; Mary's is told through diary entries.
Both girls are lonely, both yearn for friendship, love, and human contact. Mary is one of the very last children to be housed at Thornhill before its closure in 1982—as the months go by, the others are placed with foster families or at other facilities, while Mary is passed over again and again and again—as is her bully, a girl whose beautiful face and sunny smile hide a nasty, mean heart. She chronicles the daily—and nightly—abuse in her diary, and it's such a long, painful time that by the time she lashes out, most readers will only be surprised that she lasted as long as she did.
Ella, in our time, moves into the house next to the now-abandoned institution. She and her father live alone—it's never explicitly stated unless I missed something, but it seemed clear to me that her mother died recently—and her father never appears, as he's always at work. She sees a girl wandering the Thornhill grounds, goes looking for her—and, while she isn't able to make contact directly, finds a way to communicate via handmade gifts. Namely, through puppets:
From Mary's diary:
They sit on shelves above my bed, on my bookcase, suspended from the ceiling, balanced on my windowsill—my puppets are like friends that sit and keep me company. They watch me as I make their companions or add new ideas and designs to my sketchbook. I think that some people would find it creepy having all these little eyes watching them—but I don't. When I go into the dining hall and see all those old photos of unnamed girls who have lived here over the last hundred years, all lined up in ghostly groups—that's scary. But my dolls are my comfort. In some way, even though I am often on my own, with my puppets above me, I don't feel so alone.
The illustrations are atmospheric and detailed and, as I said in the first paragraph, CREEPY AS ALL GET-OUT. I mean:
I gasped aloud when I turned to that page.
That's the illustration that I see as the most likely to result in the book being challenged or pulled entirely. Even when you find out a few pages later that it's a puppet, STILL SCARY:
But I could see Thornhill raising hackles for other reasons: as in Blubber, the bullies never get punished and the adults are almost uniformly unhelpful; and, well... it's a story that deals with childhood abuse and neglect and depression and rage and—SPOILER?—suicide and it really, really doesn't go the It Gets Better route.
It's dark and it's not particularly hopeful—at least not traditionally hopeful—and for some readers, it will, for sure, be upsetting. (Though I do rather think that it'll be adult readers who are bothered most by it—and I think it's more that they'll be bothered that it's children's market than by the book itself. Related: I think it's interesting that it was published for the children's market—there's a distanced feel, especially in the illustrations, that feels more adult market to me. BUT I DIGRESS.)
It worked for me—it really worked for me. But I'm inclined towards ghost stories, and towards horror stories, and ESPECIALLY towards somewhat-twisted not-quite-happy endings.
The girls' stories are parallel without being too same-y, and Ella's emotional reaction to reading Mary's diary is really nicely done. And—oof—even though it appears less than halfway through the book, it's impossible NOT to think of that illustration of the hanging doll as Mary's diary comes to a close.
It's a ghost story that feels spare, in that it leaves a whole lot up to the reader's interpretation—there's a lot to discuss and debate here—but in a way feels Mysterious Yet Real, rather than Hand-Wavy And Vague.
Have you read this one? Do you have thoughts? Let me know! I haven't talked to anyone else who's read it and I'm so so curious to hear other takes.