The Dollhouse Murders


The Dollhouse Murders
Betty Ren Wright
Re-published by Holiday House, 2012 (the edition I read)
Originally published by Scholastic, 1985

There’s always a certain amount of danger when reading a book that you are nostalgic about. Is it worth that risk that it might not live up your memories? And if it doesn’t, can you in good conscience continue to promote it as a personal favorite, one that others should read? The Dollhouse Murders is one of those books that I have very distinct memories of reading and being terrified and thrilled by it. It and Babysitters Club book #2 Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls pretty much made me the horror/suspense fan I am today. So when I was asked to give the name of my favorite children’s or YA horror book and this choice would be made very public, I decided to reread The Dollhouse Murders to see if it held up to my memories and if I were willing to declare it my favorite, as I definitely would have at age 8 or so.

In The Dollhouse Murders, after her developmentally delayed sister ruins an afternoon at the mall, Amy runs away to her aunt’s house and ends up striking a deal to stay with Aunt Clare in the house where Amy’s great grandparents lived and raised Aunt Clare and Amy’s father. Amy discovers a dollhouse in the attic that is an exact replica of the house, complete with two adult dolls and a boy and a girl doll to represent the family. Amy is delighted at first but when she notices that the dolls are moving by themselves, the lights in the dollhouse are turning themselves on and off, she becomes scared, naturally. It becomes even more terrifying when she learns that her great grandparents were murdered in the house and the dolls seem to be recreating the crime scene. The murderer was never caught. Could the dollhouse be trying to tell Amy something? Sharing some information to solve the mystery of the murder? Yep, pretty much.

This book is a perfect example of how middle-grade horror should be. It has a few suspenseful scenes, a high creep factor with the old house, the attic, and the dolls, but the characters are never in any real danger. While it talks about murder, there is no gore or violence; that all happens in the past and is only hinted at. And while the murders seem like the main story, The Dollhouse Murders is much more about family relationships, the secrets we keep, and the uncertainties of making and keeping friends as a tween. I was surprised by how much I still liked it, despite a pretty safe, anti-climactic ending.

One last thing about Amy’s sister LouAnn. She is developmentally delayed, and aside from the use of the word “retarded” one time in the book (it was written in the ’80s after all, though they should have fixed it in the 2012 edition), LouAnn is written with great respect by the author, I felt. She is key in solving the mystery and her relationship with Amy, while strained, grows throughout the story. A fully abled little sister would have sufficed but Wright chose to write her as disabled but not helpless. While diverse writing has come a long way since 1985, I really appreciated the inclusiveness of LouAnn’s character.

I didn’t end up naming The Dollhouse Murders as my favorite children’s horror book. Instead I opted for The Witches by Roald Dahl, which is pretty much my all-time favorite children’s book that also just happens to be horror.

Fun fact: there was a made-for-TV movie based on The Dollhouse Murders in 1992.

Read alikes/some other middle grade horror-mystery-suspense I read as a ’90s kid

The Face on the Milk Carton by Lois Duncan
Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn
All the old Nancy Drew books with the yellow covers by Carolyn Keene
The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Welcome to Dead House by R.L. Stine


Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg


Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik
Dey Street Books
October 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
On the Amelia Bloomer Top Ten list

You probably recognize Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman in history to sit on the Supreme Court, by her small stature, her signature collars, her pursed mouth, or even from the online memes created to celebrate her in recent years. But if you are like me, you had no idea of the whole story. Luckily MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon and founder of the Notorious RBG tumblr, Shana Knizhnik, were here to educate me on all the ways that RBG and her work, even before joining the Supreme Court, has opened doors, knocked down walls, and sought to give women and men equal opportunities and rights (though admittedly we have a long way yet to go). The book is a mix of biography and legal history, covering RBG’s personal life and early career as well as her most famous and influential court cases.

Even more amazing to me than the accomplishments of RBG is the world in which she started her career. As a millennial woman, I knew in a vague way that women didn’t always have the opportunities that I have today, but I had no idea how bad it was. Notorious RBG lays it all out: losing your job for getting pregnant; forced abortions for women in the military even while abortion is illegal in the rest of the country; women unable to get a job to support themselves and their children after a husband dies; working women dying and their husbands not getting to collect benefits because the law assumes no women work; and the list goes on and on. RBG made it her life’s work – starting with her positions at the ACLU and teaching at high-profile law schools and still today with her seat on the Supreme Court – to make the U.S. a better place for women than it was when she was growing up but doing so while also fighting for the equal rights of all people. She is also such a character. From her relationship with her husband to the way she treats her clerks to her personal style, she is a class act and a shero of the highest order.

This book is well researched and readable. The chapter titles come from Notorious B.I.G. lyrics and there is tribute art sprinkled throughout the book. In addition to notes and citations, it has some fun back matter like “How to Be Like RBG” and “R.B.Juicy,” parody lyrics to Notorious B.I.G.’s song “Juicy.”

I don’t have any read alikes for this book, so here are some favorite quotes:

“The pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, upon closer inspection, been revealed as a cage.” (Chapter 4, location 1054 in Kindle edition)

“If women are to be leaders in life and in the military, then men have got to become accustomed to taking commands from women, and men won’t become accustomed to that if women aren’t let in.” (Chapter 5, loc. 1550 in Kindle edition)

“Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.” (Chapter 10, loc. 2633 in Kindle edition)



Daniel José Older
Arthur A. Levine Books
June 2015

In the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn, Sierra Santiago passes the time painting murals, hanging out with her tight-knit Puerto Rican family, and partying with her friends. One day her mural starts to shed tears and her abuelo, a recently bed-ridden stroke victim, comes out of his half coma and starts mumbling “lo ciento” – “I’m sorry.” Soon after, Sierra finds herself the target of attacks by some zombie-like creatures. An enchanted photograph, some research, and a couple of dates with sexy loner and artist Robbie lead her to the conclusion that she and many of her family members are shadowshapers, people who are able to control spirits by giving them form through art, basically causing their art to literally come alive. Robbie, also a shadowshaper, shows her how to use her power and it soon becomes clear that she has a natural talent for shaping. However, Dr. Wick, an academic who studies the supernatural, including shadowshaping, seeks to destroy the shadowshapers and take all their power for himself. Sierra must find a way to stop Wick and save her powers, her friends and family, and herself in order to take her destined place among the shadowshapers.

Shadowshaper is the urban fantasy I didn’t know I wanted until I read it. Beyond the story, which is fresh and suspenseful, this book has some serious meat on its bones. Themes covered include art as power, gentrification, gender equality, body image, cultural diversity, colonialism, and on and on. Sierra, the narrator, is strong yet insecure, street smart but not jaded, artistic and modern and impeccably written. I had to remind myself that a man was writing this character! I think he was a teenage girl in a past life. Read chapter 12 and you’ll know what I mean.

Daniel Jose Older has set the bar for contemporary urban fiction. I’ll be book talking the shit out of this book at my juvenile detention visits from now on.

Read alikes

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

NaNoReadMo: His Fair Assassin series


Grave Mercy
Dark Triumph
Mortal Heart
Robin LaFevers
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

In 15th century France, the devotees of the convent of St. Mortain carry out his will – death. Each of the books in the His Fair Assassin trilogy follows a different member of the convent. Grave Mercy introduces Ismae who has escaped an arranged marriage and sought refuge in the convent. She trains to become “death’s handmaiden” and is sent away to court by the abbess to spy on Duval, a man she believes is a threat to the duchess. When Isme falls in love with her target, will she be able to maintain her position with the convent? Or perhaps he isn’t who the abbess thought he was in the first place.

Isme’s friend, training mate, seductress, and confirmed head case Sybella is the focus of Dark Triumph. She comes from a well known noble family complete with abusive father, creepy incest-y brother, and innocent younger siblings that she had to leave behind in order not to go completely mad. The convent sends her back into the arms of her destructive family to root out a conspiracy against the duchess, but Sybella hopes it will be a chance for her to seek revenge against these people who hurt her so much. Of course, she finds love in an unexpected place – spoiler alert: not with her brother! Ew! – and he turns out to be the perfect compliment to both her inner rage and her deadly talents.

In the last book, Mortal Heart, Annith, a trainee who has lived at the convent her entire life but never achieved full death’s handmaiden status, is finally given an assignment, but rather than one that will send her to court like her friends, she will be locked away in the convent for the rest of her life. Unable to come to terms with what her life would be like, she runs away and becomes the prisoner/traveling partner to a band of brigands, the leader of which she happens to become quite fond of. Annith does eventually make it to court, only to find that everything she thought she knew about her life is basically a big lie. As enemies circle the duchess one last time, death’s handmaidens must decide where to place their loyalties and who will live and who will die.

I love these books so much. My attempt at summarizing them above doesn’t come close to doing them justice. The handmaidens of death are totally kick ass – specializing in everything from weapons to martial arts to poisons – and they have a sort of mystical ability to see a special mark on the people they are meant to kill. The romances in each book are unique and respectful and never force Isme, Sybella, or Annith into a position of weakness. Being a Game of Thrones fan (the TV shows; I haven’t read the books…yet!), I was also really into the political intrigue at court and the place of the abbess and the convent in politics. The convent’s loyalties are thrown into question quite a bit throughout the series, adding to the suspense of whether the convent and its devotees are killing for the right reasons and if their missions are truly divinely inspired.

Read alike:

Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Seraphina Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

NaNoReadMo: The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls


The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls
Claire LeGrand
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
August 2012

Victoria is perfect and particular, which has lead her to have only one friend in the whole world, Lawrence. When, like a handful of other kids in the neighborhood, Lawrence suddenly goes missing, Victoria must get to the bottom of it. She becomes suspicious of the Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, an ominous and mysterious school nearby and takes it upon herself to investigate. The horrors she finds there are beyond what she could have dreamed up and she finds that she’ll not only have to save her friend but also herself.

I have a serious love of children’s horror novels, and Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is near the top of that list. As far as horror goes, this is one of the most messed up children’s books I have had the pleasure to read. The things that happen in that school, while still being totally middle-grade appropriate, are gross, disturbing, and actually scary. Even as an adult, this book took me back to how I felt when I read The Dollhouse Murders as a kid, which is the litmus test against which I hold every other children’s horror book. Claire LeGrand also hits on so many good horror tropes – creepy houses, confined spaces, killer plants, mystery meat, insects! I could go on but I’ve already said too much.

The illustrations and book design rock to boot.

Read alikes:

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

Gabi: A Girl in Pieces

Gabi a girl in pieces

Gabi: A Girl in Pieces
Isabel Quintero
Cinco Puntos Press
October 2014

“…alas, Journal, I cannot lie to you. This is the only place I can be the most myself and I have to be honest.”

Life is messy for Gabi, as she shares with readers in her journal. She’s an emotional binge eater with two best friends – one pregnant and one gay, a mother who is convinced Gabi is a “bad girl,” a dad who is addicted to meth, an aunt who alternates between zealous Christianity and cultish superstition, and all she she wants to do is survive her senior year and get into college. While this might make the book seem heavy or all doom-and-gloom, it’s really not. Gabi’s sassy attitude, nearly unshakable confidence, brutal honesty, and mature insights (actually, a little too mature at times) make you want to be her best friend rather than feeling bad for all the adversity she faces. It helps that she is also hilarious. Gabi is a girl with opinions about all sorts of things – body image, race (particularly the quirks of Latino culture), sex, and the double standard of how boys and girls are treated, especially as teenagers. As in so many YA books, a teacher, her writing teacher Ms. Abernard, is a big influence on Gabi when she starts writing poetry for Ms. A’s class and performing spoken word with the college kids at a local coffee shop. There is even a zine in the middle of the book – one of Gabi’s zine illustrations is where the book’s awesomely weird cover comes from – that is a product of her writing class. We should all have had such amazing teachers in high school. Gabi dabbles with romance, kissing a few boys but ultimately ending up with arguably one of the best boyfriends in a YA book in recent memory. And she even slaps a couple people. Basically she is awesome and so is this book.

Everyone should stop what they are doing right now and read this book. I’m going to go out on a limb and call it as a sure thing for at least an honor if not the winner of the Printz or the Morris.