Everyone knows that ghosts can be terrifying. Many can rattle off stories about wandering spirits and vengeful entities that chilled the blood, but some might forget that ghosts aren’t always scary. One could point out that being a ghost is like having red hair or being double-jointed; it’s an aspect of that person’s (or spirit’s) character but it’s not the totality of it. The overall ghost story might tone down the terror for the audience or because the author wants to tell a different kind of story involving ghosts and the afterlife. Such is the case of Ghost Book, written and drawn by Remy Lai, a book about ghosts that speak to kids while also tackling some complex topics like grief and friendship.
The story begins with two children who were born on the same day, and are tied together due to some cosmic shenanigans. July Chen is considered eccentric by many of her classmates, when they notice her at all. She has what’s called Yin Yang eyes, which allow her to see ghosts, including the hungry ones that come out during Hungry Ghost Month. Despite her father’s insistence that ghosts aren’t real, she still sees them and William, who is not a ghost but a wandering spirit caught between the realms of the living and the dead. July tries to help her new friend get back to his body, but the price to save him may be too high.
Young readers will find a plucky protagonist in July Chen, who is considered by many of her peers to be “weird” but is still a brave, resourceful heroine when it counts. She is also dealing with the loss of her mother, who died when she was born, and a father who practically refuses to talk about July’s mother. As July tries to protect William, readers will also see a friendship that begins because both children are terribly isolated (William, because of his condition, and July, because of her reputation), but that bond grows more as they go on a quest into the realm of the dead where many terrors await them.
The art does depict some unsettling images of hungry ghosts. Looking like rejected sketches while Edvard Munch was painting “The Scream,” their empty eyes and repetition of the word “hungry”—all drawn in a sickly gray speech balloon—make them seem even more inhuman and terrifying. They become especially frightening when they are drawn toward William as a potential snack. However, the book balances the frights with lighter fantasy elements, like the bumbling Ox-head and Horse-face, who look exactly like their names imply. They are collectors of wayward spirits and are also pursuing July and William, but they are also more interested in eating dumplings than meeting their quotas.
The book exists in a world of Chinese mythology while also dealing with some universal truths. Ghost Book is a Orpheus-like descent into a fantastical underworld while also serving a moral about the hold grief can have over the living. Its simplistic artwork does imply that this story is for children, those who might see a little of themselves in William or July, but it also doesn’t pander to its audience and should be a part of any children’s graphic novel collection.
By Remy Lai
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12 years
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Indonesian,