Willow wants to save her family’s business. Evie’s ready to break free from her family’s strictly defined roles.
Who knew the solution to both their problems combines a Phantasm’s shriek, a murder mystery and some good old-fashioned sleuthing?
Austin author Cory Putman Oakes puts it all together in "The Second-Best Haunted Hotel on Mercer Street" (Amulet/Abrams, $14.99; illustrations by Jane Pica), her new middle-grade tale about moving on from loss and the value of authenticity. She’ll discuss the book Thursday virtually via BookPeople, with "Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez" author and fellow Austinite Adrianna Cuevas.
Yes, there are two haunted hotels on Mercer Street. In Oakes’ imagining, real people happily coexist with ghosts and even pay to be spooked on vacation at places like the Hotel Ivan, which Willow’s family has owned and operated for five generations.
A trip Oakes took to California years ago fueled a spark that eventually became the book, she explained in a phone interview. In town for a wedding and up all night with her then-infant son, she walked the halls of their hotel soaking up the atmosphere.
"We went all over this hotel, just the two of us," she said. "We were in these huge ballrooms where clearly there had just been an event. There were these echoes of people who had been there. It felt very haunted, although we didn't see ghosts. We played piano; we met the guy with the giant vacuum; the guy at the front desk brought me coffee.
"I thought to myself, ‘I would love to write a book that takes place almost entirely in a hotel.’ "
Unlike that historic hotel, though, the Ivan has fallen on hard times. Willow’s mom is a ghost, her dad is depressed and hasn’t kept up with paperwork, and with a dearth of guests, the Ivan’s resident ghosts are increasingly Fading. Minus the infusion of energy from scares, spirits Fade before passing on permanently, or so the lore goes.
Worse, competition has come to town. The Hauntery is opening another of its McFranchises down the street, and it’s legendary for keeping its customers satisfied with a cast of ghostly characters that never fail to terrify guests. It’s got the scares down to a science, all outlined in an employee handbook that shows how designated NCEs (Non-Corporeal Entities) play set roles like the Phantasm, a fearsome shrieking spirit. NCEs employed by the Hauntery know the system works, and there’s no worry of Fading.
Evie’s family works for the Hauntery for just that reason, and Evie has her role to play: a Spooky Little Girl, forever twinned with her frenemy cousin Louise. "Come and play with us," the pigtailed girls coo, channeling those spooky "Shining" girls. Evie’s ready to harness her otherworldly powers and graduate to Phantasm level. But there’s a glass ceiling at the Hauntery even for NCEs.
"Part of the overall theme of this book is how they move on," Oakes said. "Every character, even the smaller ones, all have their arcs of what they're moving on from. Some of them are moving on from a loss. Some are moving on as a ghost. Some of them are moving on from expectations.
"When we talk about ghosts, we talk about how they have to finish their business before they move on. But those of us who are living who experience a loss have to move on from that loss, too."
Who wins the coveted Zagged Guide award for best haunted hotel? There’s only room for one on Mercer Street. But the truths Oakes shares are universal and will resonate with both middle-graders and their parents — even if you don’t believe in ghosts. (Ages 8-12)
Smart conversations on race with ‘The Talk’
As protests against police brutality have raged around the country, more parents of all races have heard about the Talk — the conversation Black parents have with their children about what they must do to stay safe. Now comes "The Talk: Conversations About Race, Love and Truth" (Crown/Random House, $16.99), a new anthology of essays, stories, poems and art edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson. Austin author and artist Don Tate’s work illustrates Valerie Wilson Wesley’s essay "Never Be Afraid to Soar," a letter to her grandson that spotlights her father’s experience as a Tuskegee Airman who won the Distinguished Flying Cross.
"Black people weren’t allowed to fly planes. Some said we weren’t smart enough and couldn’t learn the skills," Wesley writes. "Your great-grandfather knew those were lies. He knew who he was. He wouldn’t let others define him."
The slim volume covers a range of "talks" with depth and breadth. It includes Newbery award winner Meg Medina’s love letter to bilingual belonging, and picture-book author Minh Lê’s examination of the parenting balance between wonders and darkness, along with his sadness that he must explain to his elementary-age children why police are at their synagogue. It’s the perfect entry point to conversations with your own family, regardless of background. (Ages 11 and older)
Two book events to begin September
September kicks off the busiest season for book events. Among the already-announced young adult events at BookPeople that should be on your radar: Jennifer Lynn Barnes and Ellie Marney team at 6 p.m. Sept. 4 to discuss their new thrillers.
Barnes’ "The Inheritance Games" (Little, Brown, $17.99) centers on Avery, a scholarship hopeful who discovers a billionaire has left her almost his entire fortune. The only catch is that she must move into his puzzle-filled mansion, along with four grandsons who don’t quite understand why Avery gets the lion’s share of the patriarch’s money. Marney’s newest, "None Shall Sleep" (Little, Brown, $17.99), spotlights two teens who work with the FBI to hunt a serial killer targeting young people.
Austin author Marit Weisenberg unveils her Austin-set "The Insomniacs" (Flatiron Books, $18.99) at 6 p.m. Sept. 9. Teens Ingrid and Van steer clear of each other during the day, but at night they spend hours together. The two slowly discover what secrets the empty house next door holds as their feelings for each other steadily build. (Ages 14 and older)