Thanks Kidlit Exchange and Scholastic for the ARC of Kim Ventrella’s compassionate and brilliant Middle Grade fantasy / folklore novel BONE HOLLOW!
Even Death needs an understudy, and eleven-year-old Gabe is It. When he climbs up on his odious guardian/foster mother Miss Cleo’s roof to rescue her prize-winning hen Princess Carmella, he’s impaled on a weathervane and…
Well, Gabe doesn’t remember dying, but he has a giant hole through his abdomen and people seem pretty upset to see him. He flees into the woods where he meets the mysterious Wynne. She starts off looking just like his BFF Niko from elementary school but with bones for limbs, but later changes form into a preteen Black girl who died in the 1920s of the flu.
But after 80 years as death, Wynne is beat and the universe (there are components of death even we don’t understand) has chosen Gabe as her successor. Wynne and Gabe form a complicated but tight bond as Gabe struggles to say goodbye-for-now to his new friend/mentor and accept his new role.
Ventrella captures little-discussed human quirks, like the love we develop from the familiarity of seeing even the more loathsome people. Gabe’s grief at the loss of his mortal life and relationships is “dealt with” sensitively, but a reader will appreciate the wonder and peace he deals with in the fairyland of Bone Hollow and in the magic he brings to the people he helps cross over.
Ventrella doesn’t shy from difficult themes: a Christian Pastor is a notable figure in a lynch mob against a undead-Gabe; BONE HOLLOW calls out the past and very present racism in the American South (Wynne died for lack of a doctor willing to treat Black people, Gabe stood out in life for being open to an interracial friendship).
Caveat: Sensitive readers may be bothered by a few scenes where adult and child bullies come after Gabe (to beat up a dead guy I guess?) They get his dog Ollie, who is later killed by a car to join Gabe as Death’s apprentice. To note, the latter is hinted.
BONE HOLLOW deals with death as a universal, mysterious, and spiritual phenomenon, outside the confines of religious dogma. We see that Wynne, and Gabe’s parents, and even Miss Cleo (who expresses regret in her final moments at not treating Gabe better) go on to an unspecified peace and reunification with their loved ones.
It cannot be overstated: mainstream American culture often fails miserably at delivering this message, and we all need more books like BONE HOLLOW.
BONE HOLLOW was released Feb 26, 2019 from Scholastic.