The List of Unspeakable Fears

Atheneum. Sept. 2021. 288p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781534480742.
Gr 4-7–Essie O’Neill fears many things in 1911 New York City. Some are irrational—polar bears, electric lights, cats—but many (infectious diseases, red doors, fires) are grounded in her traumatic past. After her father died, her mother sank into a deep depression. Essie sleepwalks, worries constantly, and has terrible nightmares. She has more to worry about after her mother, a nurse, remarries and moves them both to North Brother Island. Essie’s new stepfather is the chief of Riverside Hospital, which quarantines New Yorkers with infectious diseases. Angry and fearful, she thinks the strange German immigrant doctor is behind the mystery of the missing nurses. So Essie investigates and draws (incorrect) conclusions. She befriends the island’s most famous patient, “Typhoid Mary” Mallon, and discovers more about the General Slocum maritime tragedy, which she watched in horror as a young child. She also receives help from a ghostly child who shows Essie that she cannot be brave unless she tackles her fears—sensitive readers may tremble at these incredibly suspenseful and deliciously creepy scenes. Ultimately, Essie learns her fears can be conquered if she names them and accepts help. She also learns to accept people whom she does not understand, such as immigrants, by viewing their differences as strengths. Though the work is not for easily spooked readers, it’s a suspenseful take on conquering fears, with a lesson on how first impressions can be very wrong.
VERDICT Set on an isolated island in a quarantine hospital, and following a heroine who confronts ghosts, nightmares, and palpable fears, this is the perfect Halloween read.

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