The Phantom Isles by Stephen Alter has what it takes to become a children’s classic, imbued with the type of found in other great children’s literature like the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, or the books of Roald Dahl, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and The Fantastic Mister Fox.
Three friends, Ming, Orion, and Courtney, break into the Carville, Massachusetts, town library one night and together recite an incantation that they find in a book called The Complete Necromancer that is supposed to bring the dead back to life. Nothing seems to happen, but the next day the librarian the next day opens a book the kids accidently left on the floor called A Comprehensive History of American Whaling Vessels, and she gets the shock of her life when she sees the image of a boy’s face “like a filmy, translucent layer,” hovering above the words on one of the pages.
This boy’s ghost - or arora, as it’s known as in The Phantom Isles - is just one of many that she and the three children discover when they check through a collection of books donated to the library by Nicodemus J. Osgood from the personal collection of his father, Professor Hezekiah T. Osgood. Books weren’t the only thing Hezekiah collected; he also collected the aroras (or phantoms, or souls) of the deceased inhabitants of a group of islands called Ilhas dos Fantasmas, or the Phantom Islands, also known as Prithvideep, by using a specially modified camera and film.
One of the coolest things about The Phantom Isles is that it has the faces of some of the aroras on its pages; it’s almost as if the story is coming true for the reader, making him or her an active participant in this magical tale. Such is the case for Porquoix, which has the tattoo of a winged conch on his left cheek, as do all of the inhabitants of the Ilhas dos Fantsmas. The past life stories of some of the aroras and how they met their deaths are told in The Phantom Isles , too, lending a sense of pathos and beauty when one reads about how life must have been for the natives when they were alive. Porquoix met his death while spearfishing for octopus one day and instead became the meal for a shark.
Rescuing the aroras and freeing them from their prisons of books won’t be easy for Ming, Orion, and Courtney, especially when they also have to deal with the complication of having a teacher, Mrs. Hokum, who is into banning and burning books that she feels might make children feel bad or have a lowered sense of self esteem. As Mrs. Hokum tells Morris Burpee, the chief of police, about the library,
“The place is infested and dangerous. It’s full of books that children shouldn’t be
exposed to--terrible stories with tragic endings, ugly descriptions of unpleasant
places, biographies of criminals and thugs, scientific theories that haven’t been
proven, histories of countries that no longer exist. Why, it’s an absolute disgrace
that we should have this kind of library in our town!”
And, what are some of the books that Mrs. Hokum would like to see banned? In a letter to the librarian, she names titles she finds “unacceptable” such as The Witches by Roald Dahl, Bleak House by Charles Dickens, The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, among other classic works of literature. She wants them replaced “with more wholesome literature,” and says she “would be happy to help remove them from the library.” Mrs. Hokum’s attitudes provide some of the book’s sardonic sense of humor, and her character reminds me somewhat of the evil aunts in Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.
The Phantom Isles will reward you with a wealth of great characters, a suspenseful plot, and fun of the twisted Dahl-esque sort. It’s haunting, a story that will live with you long after you’ve finished the book, like all great literature does. Every book for kids that comes out these days seems to be compared to the Harry Potter books or other well-written bestselling children’s books. I generally don’t like that, because it’s difficult to live up to that sort of hype, and rarely are the books anywhere close to being as good as the ones they’re compared to. In the case of The Phantom Isles , though, I am comparing the quality of the writing only, and the type of humor that pervades the examples I’ve mentioned. This brilliant book is highly recommended.