cover image The List of Unspeakable Fears

The List of Unspeakable Fears

J. Kasper Kramer. Atheneum, $17.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5344-8074-2

It is January 1910, and cued-white nine-year-old narrator Essie O’Neill and her Irish-born mother are moving from their tenement apartment to the island that houses New York City’s quarantine hospital, joining Essie’s new stepfather, the hospital director, in his lavish home. Essie, who has regular nightmares, “fully expect[s] to perish” there; her beloved father’s death still haunts her, and her new life will surely expose her to many of the items on her List of Unspeakable Fears—an index including everything from “ravenous polar bears” to doors, fire, and “talkative strangers.” The news that three nurses have recently gone missing from the island—and the suspicion that her sinister-seeming stepfather is responsible—gives Essie a focus for her anxiety (sensitively portrayed and discussed further in an author’s note). Over the course of her investigation, she also discovers how fear can distort one’s sense of reality, and that “being scared is the first step to being brave.” Intricately and elegantly plotted, and full of vividly rendered details—including appearances by Typhoid Mary—Kramer’s (The Story That Cannot Be Told) novel is a deliciously creepy ghost story with a mystery at its core and, given discussions about vaccines and contagion, special resonance for the current historical moment. Ages 8–12. Agent: Yishai Seidman, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner. (Sept.)