09.08.2022

Children’s Books: Bullies, Ghosts and Creepy Dolls

The illustrated spreads tell the story of a present-day girl named Ella, who has moved into the house across from the now abandoned orphanage. Out her bedroom window, she gazes at Thornhill, boarded up and graffitied, and sees … something. The rest of the story alternates between Mary’s descriptions of social agonies in the face of her nemesis and Ella’s lonely attempts to confront what she soon determines to be a ghost.

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The tale is mostly ghost- and bully-driven, but has lighter moments as Mary reads and identifies with the far gentler “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. “The girl in it is called Mary too and her parents die right at the beginning of the story, so she is on her own, like me.” Indeed, 1982 Mary has her own secret garden where she hides from her harasser. It’s bedraggled even then, and, in 2017, still more overgrown and littered with the severed bodies of dolls, which Ella finds, repairs and returns to the ghost in an offer of friendship.

“Thornhill” also has ghostly echoes of Charlotte Brönte’s “Jane Eyre,” beginning with the similarity of its name to Thornfield, home of the glowering Mr. Rochester and his madwoman in the attic, where the orphaned Jane is governess. Is Mary a gentle Jane Eyre or the mad Bertha? I won’t tell you, and neither does Smy.

Smy’s illustrations are moody comics-style spreads of gray paint and black ink, just creepy enough. A canny observer can read them like text; these visuals tell a wordless story of a girl, her workaholic father and absent mother. Drawings of newspaper articles reveal pieces of the orphanage’s history. The images’ silence is as mute as Mary and as evocative as her diary. On occasion, though, the spreads feel more atmospheric than plot-driven and the repeated black pages separating sections feel like unnecessary padding.

“Thornhill” owes a great deal to Brian Selznick’s groundbreaking novels, like “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” Smy has created a gothic take on Selznick’s hybrid format, and as with many gothic novels, the ending of this spectral tale is rather gruesome and more than a bit confusing. But the book will certainly pull lovers of ghost stories, narrative illustration and creepy dolls into its dark pages, to revel in its scares and ambiguities.

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