THE LIST OF UNSPEAKABLE FEARS, by J. Kasper Kramer, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Sept. 14, 2021, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 8-12)
A girl who has widespread anxieties finds herself living on the same island as Typhoid Mary in J. Kasper Kramer’s The List of Unspeakable Fears.
Essie O’Neill is afraid of everything. She’s afraid of cats and electric lights. She’s afraid of the silver sick bell, a family heirloom that brings up frightening memories. Most of all, she’s afraid of the red door in her nightmares.
But soon Essie discovers so much more to fear. Her mother has remarried, and they must move from their dilapidated tenement in the Bronx to North Brother Island, a dreary place in the East River. That’s where Essie’s new stepfather runs a quarantine hospital for the incurable sick, including the infamous Typhoid Mary. Essie knows the island is plagued with tragedy. Years ago, she watched in horror as the ship General Slocum caught fire and sank near its shores, plummeting one thousand women and children to their deaths.
Now, something on the island is haunting Essie. And the red door from her dreams has become a reality, just down the hall from her bedroom in her terrifying new house. Convinced her stepfather is up to no good, Essie investigates. Yet to uncover the truth, she will have to face her own painful history — and what lies behind the red door. —Synopsis provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
I had a hard time with The List of Unspeakable Fears. While I found the setting of North Brother Island the perfect backdrop for this story, I initially had a hard time connecting with author J. Kasper Kramer’s main character.
First off, Essie isn’t just scared of a few things. She’s afraid of everything. And that can make her a little hard to take. Add in that a seemingly indifferent mother, and the beginning is a bit of a slog. However, if you keep with Essie’s story, you realize there’s a lot more there. And by the halfway point, I was actively engaged.
All of that said, I am an adult, and I think younger readers will have less of a problem with the opening than I did. In many ways, it reads like the many worries little ones have on a regular basis, just amplified. Younger readers will most likely identify more with Essie, and be drawn in by the mystery elements.
I would suggest checking this one out from the library prior to purchase to make sure it’s a good fit for your reader.
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