When Matt Russo went on vacation with his mom and his little sister Judy, he expected regular summer fun. He didn’t expect to come home and find out that Ruby, the best nanny ever, who just had a little cough when he left, would actually have died while he was gone. And it seems like he’s the only one who really cares that she’s gone. 

Matt’s friends are tired of being canceled on while he wallows in his grief, but his single mom can’t keep calling out of her night shifts at work, so when his friends decide to cheer him up with a surprise sleepover full of all the classics—scary movies, junk food, and prank calls to strangers—they’re met with a surprise of their own: new babysitter Miss Swan, hired on the spot to watch the boys (and Judy) for the night.

At first, Miss Swan seems like every kid’s dream babysitter, she doesn’t care what they eat, and they can pretty much do whatever they want! But Matt thinks there’s something a little bit off about her. After all, why is she acting so strange? Could she really be the witch who eats local children, like the legend says, or have they all just been watching too many scary movies? Does Matt just miss Ruby too much? As the night takes a turn for the creepy, the kids just might find out if the monsters under the bed are purely stories, or if they’re real after all.

What seems on the surface like just a fun horror tale for middle grade readers, is, in Michael Regina’s capable hands, a nuanced portrayal of childhood grief and the challenges of dealing with sudden and unexpected loss. Matt’s feelings are palpable and real, and readers who have experienced loss of any kind in their own lives may relate to the way he shuts out his well-meaning friends and gets angrier than usual at his younger sister and his mom. But it’s how he handles himself and his past actions in the face of a new, perhaps more tangible monster, and how that will be encouraging to young readers.

The lore within the story of the Witch of the Woods (because what is a spooky story without a big scary forest that you probably shouldn’t go into, but you take your little sister with you into anyway?) sets off the high stakes thrills of the story, testing friendships, bravery, and horror movie trope knowledge with humor and heart. The early 90s setting of the story lends the kids a freedom to handle things on their own in a way a modern setting might not, and Regina’s colorful, engaging art style brings that decade to life, immersing readers in an authentic way. 

With occasional jump scares executed creatively by Regina through formatting and layout choices, and characters who aren’t quite what they seem (watch out for ravens!), tweens will be enticed by the promise of chills, and will come away having learned just how far people will go for their family and friends (Matt’s got some pretty great ones, it turns out, and he learns how to be a good one, too), and what it means to face your fears and truly grieve. 

The Sleepover would be a worthwhile addition to any middle grade collection, especially for readers looking for that Stranger Things blend of friendship, family, and creepy thrills with a throwback vibe.

The Sleepover
By Michael Regina
Penguin Random House Razorbill, 2021
ISBN: 9780593117347
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

  • Maddi

    | she/her Youth Services Librarian


    Maddi is a Youth Services Librarian at the Charlotte & William Bloomberg Medford Public Library in Massachusetts, where she runs the library’s GSA for teens in grades 6-9, two graphic novel book clubs (one for teens and one for 4th and 5th graders), drawing classes for kids and teens, storytimes, and more. She is also responsible for collection development for the teen graphic novel collection, where (in alignment with the rest of the coworkers in her department) she makes it her mission to amplify queer, BIPOC, neurodivergent, and disabled voices. When she’s not at the library, you’ll likely find her: singing in two queer choirs, drawing or hand lettering something, curled up with a book, or spending time with her girlfriend and friends. Maddi runs the MPL GSA Tumblr at mplchameleon, and tweets bookish things at @littlebrarian.

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