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Young readers book reviews for ages 8 to 12 years old

*Ghost Letters* by Stephen Alter- young readers book review
Also by Stephen Alter:

The Phantom Isles
Ghost Letters
by Stephen Alter
Ages 9-12 240 pages Bloomsbury USA January 2008 Hardcover    

The town of Carville, Massachusetts is haunted, and not just by a single ghost. A phantom mailman wanders around looking for "dead" letters while messages in bottles are delivered to people in the past. Student papers with poor penmanship are found torn up, and a genie resembling an English butler materializes from a poem written in magic ink.

Gil arrives in this unusual town in a bit of a pickle. Kicked out of the prestigious and pretentious McCauley Prep School, he must live with his poet grandfather until another school will accept him. Their large house was built by Ezekiel Finch, a man who moved to India after being jilted by his love. Camilla had written him a letter to patch things up but it ends up at the bottom of the ocean. She becomes a spinster and lives out her lonely life as a teacher of penmanship. Legend has it that her skeleton hand will roam about until it lays to rest in the hand of her lost love. Until then, the ghostly hand scrutinizes all student papers in town for good penmanship and eliminates those that do not reach her high standards.

Lonely and bored, Gil makes his way down to the ocean, where he finds a blue bottle of Gripe Water bobbing on the surface. For fun, he places a message in it and throws it back in the water. He later retrieves the bottle and finds that a boy named Sikander from India has written back – and the message is dated over one hundred years ago.

As this unusual pen-pal relationship develops, Gil learns his new friend is a calligrapher’s apprentice and lives in British-occupied India. As war looms on the horizon, Sikander is frantic because his best friend has been kidnapped. Unknown to him, two letters, one for the ransom and the other with information sufficient to stop the war, are lost. As a result, disaster occurs on both counts. With the help of his new friend Nargis, Gil tries to change history for Sikander, Ezekiel, and Camilla by being “a messenger of peace, save a life, and hold the key of love in his heart.”

Ghost Letters has everything a parent wants in a children’s book. It is a fast-paced, exciting story, educational, and promotes good values. The educational aspects are phenomenal. I was delighted to see great poetry peppered throughout the story, including a stanza from “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” written in Old English. Presented in a fun and interesting manner, and alongside some silly verses written by the grandfather, poetry is used as a means to summon the genie and solve riddles. There are also excerpts by Longfellow, Carroll, Coleridge, Poe, and the fantastic “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.”

Good values are presented in a positive, non-judgmental way. Since Gil was expelled for plagiarism, writing well and honestly is an appropriate theme for the story. Instead of punishment however, author Stephen Alter uses different types of education and retraining as a means to cultivate honesty and confident writing techniques. First Gil experiences writing as the sole means of communication with Sikander, then solves riddles as a way to help him, and is finally challenged by his grandfather to think in more creative ways. Gil returns to school well prepared to do his own work.

The way secrets are handled is impressive. Gil and Nargis have plenty of opportunities to keep the ghostly happenings under wraps but instead choose to reveal all to Gil’s grandfather and his girlfriend, Lenore. In return, the adults trust the children, and this open communication helps them work together to solve puzzles and dilemmas.

Ghost Letters is a terrific book any child would enjoy.

Stephen Alter has also written The Phantom Isles as well as eight books for adults.

Young readers book reviews for ages 8 to 12 years old

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