Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - Spellbinder

Author: Helen Stringer
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends (Hardcover: September 29, 2009; Paperback: April 12, 2011)
Source: Personal Copy
Audience: Ages 9 to 12 years
Fiction * Middle Grades * Fantasy

Description from GoodReads:
Belladonna Johnson can see ghosts. It’s a trait she’s inherited from her mother’s side of the family, like blue eyes or straight hair. And it’s a trait she could do without, because what twelve-year-old wants to be caught talking to someone invisible?

It is convenient, though, after Belladonna’s parents are killed in a car accident. They can live with her the same as always, watching the same old TV shows in their same old house. Nothing has changed . . . until
everything changes.

One night, with no warning, they vanish into thin air—along with every other ghost in the world. It’s what some people think ghosts are supposed to do, but Belladonna knows it’s all wrong. They may not be living, but they’re not supposed to be gone.

With the help of her classmate Steve, a master of sneaking and spying, Belladonna is left to uncover what’s become of the spirits and to navigate a whole world her parents have kept well-hidden. If she can’t find her way, she’ll lose them again—this time for good.

"Some parts you don't want to put this book (Spellbinder) down and then in other parts you don't know if you should keep reading (because it is a bit scary)." - Jackie, age 10

Writing for children in what is considered the Middle Grades (Ages 9 to 12) can be a definite challenge.  Reading levels, life experiences, and maturation vary so much.  And just like the variety of children in this age group, books for this audience seem to also vary significantly.  However, I always love finding smart writing that holds the reader's attention, has a cast of solidly developed characters, and doesn't seem to be too old or too young for it's audience.

Helen Stringer's debut novel Spellbinder is really an amazing book.  Several times I stopped as I was reading just to admire, Stringer's use of language.  Maybe I am a little partial to British mysteries and fantasy stories, but when they are well done there is nothing better to read.

In Spellbinder, readers are introduced to Belladonna Johnson.  A 12 year old girl who can see ghosts, including her parents.  Of course, seeing ghosts isn't the unusual thing about Belladonna, at least not in her family.  However, what is unusual is when the ghosts start disappearing.  Belladonna sets out to find out what has happened to all the ghosts.  With her parents' disappearance, and her aunt and grandmother's unwillingness to include her in discovering what is happening, she must rely on the support of a classmate, Steve, and a 100 hundred year old ghost named Elsie, who died as a student and haunts the school.

Stringer works to tie in the present with a bit of Greek Mythology, and some bits and pieces of various ghost stories to provide just the right mix of creepy scary with action adventure.  As Belladonna searches for her parents and what is happening to the world, she must find the Spellbinder for the answers.  Some say she is the Spellbinder and that her friend Steve - her Paladin.  But if she is the Spellbinder, how come she doesn't feel like she has any answers?  Steve adds a bit of humor with his quick comebacks and ability to sneak into places he technically shouldn't be in, but he certainly proves himself a faithful friend.  Elsie, despite being annoying at times, proves to be quite the guide and mentor when adults don't seem willing to answer any questions.

Though the story ties up nicely, there were enough questions left unanswered for readers to yearn for future books.  At this point, if you are just discovering this series, you don't have to wait to pick up book 2 -
The Midnight Gate - which was released in the middle of May.  More action and adventure await Belladonna and Steve.  To find out a little more about the book, stop by the blog on June 1st, for a guest interview with author Helen Stringer.

When Feiwel & Friends released
Spellbinder, the original cover was of Belladonna having a meal with her ghostly parents (see cover above).  I guess they must have felt the cover wasn't exciting enough.  With the release of the paperback version, Spellbinder received an exciting update that matches the cover for The Midnight Gate.

I can see where the new covers may be much more attractive to middle grade readers.  What do you think?

If you haven't discovered Helen's website, she has quite a few things on it for children interested in her books.  You can click on the link to check out the information and games about her books:

You can follow Helen Stringer on Twitter: @hcstringer
She can be found on Facebook by clicking