by Penelope Lively
Age: 8 +
Interests: ghosts, history, magic, supernatural
Heinemann Young Books: 1973
242 pages, 12 chapters
Also by this author: The House in Norham Gardens, Astercote, A Stitch in Time, The Voyage of QV66
Somehow when the Harrisons moved into the old cottage and fixed up the ratty attic room for ten-year-old James, they disturbed an ancient ghost, a sorcerer from 300 years ago named Thomas Kempe. Kempe has decided that James will be his new apprentice and writes him bossy notes, besides slamming doors, thumping about, and breaking things to get attention. James’ parents, not believing in ghosts, naturally blame all the mayhem on James. Even worse, Kempe begins meddling in the affairs of the townspeople, leaving scrawled messages everywhere and accusing a very nice old lady of being a witch. James has got to find a way to put the ghost to rest before he does something really bad, and before James loses his allowance and dessert privileges forever.
What begins as a very straightforward and entertaining ghost story takes on a more thoughtful and moving tone as James researches the history of the house and town. He finds a diary from the 1800s that tells the story of the last time Kempe ran amok in the cottage, and the characters from that time really come alive for James. When he realizes that a portrait in his school of a portly old man with whiskers is the ten-year-old Arnold of the diary, he ponders the passage of time and the different people we become as we grow older.
James is a wonderfully drawn character, a rambunctious and mischievous yet history-loving and thoughtful boy who loves nothing more than to torment his sister. The fact that the ghost is getting him into all kinds of trouble he doesn’t deserve propels him in his research and leads him to surprising new friendships with the neighbourhood gossip Mrs. Verity and Bert Ellison, a carpenter who also dabbles in exorcism.
This book is lively (sorry) enough to keep young readers interested, and the ghost’s shenanigans are more comedic than creepy. The historic tidbits are amusing and don’t slow the story down at all. I particularly love the way James heads straight to the library when he wants to find out about something and isn’t afraid to dive into those dusty old books. With any luck, this novel might well inspire readers to learn more about history!