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“From everything she’d ever read or seen, ghosts didn’t talk in complete sentences. They moaned or wailed. They screamed like banshees. They rattled chains. They didn’t inquire about your well-being. They didn’t make jokes about warts. None of the ghosts in her father’s stories had a sense of humor,” Riley. –Riley’s Ghost
by John David Anderson
Riley Flynn is alone.
It feels like she’s been on her own since sixth grade, when her best friend, Emily, ditched her for the cool girls. Cool girls don’t like Riley. They decide one day to lock Riley in the science closet after hours, after everyone else has gone home.
When Riley is finally able to escape the closet, she finds that her horror story is only just beginning. All the school doors are locked, the windows won’t budge, the phones are dead, and the lights aren’t working. Through halls lit only by the narrow beam of her flashlight, Riley roams the building, seeking a way out, an answer, an explanation. And as she does, she starts to suspect she isn’t alone after all.
While she’s always liked a good scary story, Riley knows there is no such thing as ghosts. But what else could explain the things happening in the school, the haunting force that seems to lurk in every shadow, around every corner? As she tries to find answers, she starts reliving moments that brought her to this night. Moments from her own life…and a life that is not her own.
Riley’s Ghost explores the issue of bullying through two girls’ experiences. While the premise is unique—a girl is forced to face her past hurts with the help of a ghost—the story is frustrating because of the frequent flashbacks. Since much of the story is told in the past tense, the story’s pacing is slow and has very few dramatic scenes. When something interesting begins to happen, the story quickly shifts to past events which kills the suspense. While the constant jumps into the past help explain Riley’s behavior, she is not relatable or likable. Riley has often been the target of bullies; however, her own behavior has caused some of her problems.
The addition of Max, a ghost who is using a half-dissected frog as a vessel, should add interest, but the ghost does not evoke sympathy because he is so awful. Instead of helping Riley, the frog does not want to confront his past. Riley is left to guess at Max’s motives. Even at the end, Max learns nothing and only wants to forget about his past mistakes instead of making amends. Plus, the story’s message is confusing because the story shows that most people pay for their mistakes, but “nobody should have to pay for their past mistakes indefinitely.”
Riley’s Ghost takes a hard look at the bullying that can take place during middle school and shows how bullying can have a lasting impact on the victims. Unfortunately, the conclusion is confusing and chaotic, and the lesson is unclear. In the end, the story hints that Riley’s life makes a dramatic turn for the better, but the conclusion jumps to a feel-good ending without showing how Riley was able to make changes. For readers who want to explore the issue of bullying further, Out of Place by Jennifer Blecher and Fortune Falls by Jenny Goebel would be better book selections.
- Riley thinks about her teachers. “And rumor had it that Mrs. Brendaker, the choir teacher, was madly in love with Ms. Child, which was bound to be hard on Mr. Brendaker, if and when he found out.”
- While in middle school, Heather and her friend kiss. The boy “gave her her first awkward kiss underneath the bleachers by the tennis courts.”
- In a hallway at school, Grace gets in Riley’s face. “Grace poked Riley just below the collar of her sweatshirt. . . Her chest burned above her heart where Grace’s finger had just been.” Without thinking, “Riley’s right arm, which uncoiled unconsciously, swinging fast, the open hand connected with Grace’s left cheek with such force it made the other girls’ head whip around.”
- After Riley slaps Grace, Grace and her friends lock Riley in a supply closet in the science classroom.
- When a half-dissected frog begins talking to Riley, she “kicked out with her right foot, sending the creature with its dissected belly and its flopping innards soaring ten feet, straight into a wall, where it hit with a sickening slap.”
- Riley gets angry at the frog and tries to stomp him. “Riley chased after the frog frantically leaping down the hall, trying to smash him under her bootheel like a toddler squashing bugs on the blacktop, until she cornered him in the entryway of a classroom, backed against the door.” She grabs the frog and thinks, “it would be easy to snap his spine, to feel it splinter.”
- A ghost leads Riley into the auditorium where Riley sees a vision of the ghost’s life. When Riley sees the ghost’s face in a mirror, she reaches out to touch it. “The mirror shattered at her touch, splintering into a thousand pieces. Riley screamed. . . She felt her feet mysteriously pulled out from under her, a moment of pure weightlessness, a total loss of control.” Riley falls and her “head snapped back, striking the hardwood floor, taking away the last bit of light.” Riley is knocked unconscious.
- When Riley was in elementary school, a classmate named Jordan messed up her drawing. Without thinking, she stabbed him with a pencil. “But she had got lucky—or unlucky—catching the soft web of tissue between Jordan’s thumb and forefinger. . . Jordan screamed again. The wound, now free to bleed, burbling up a tiny stream that trickled down the length of his thumb.” Afterwards, Riley had to see a therapist.
- When she was in middle school, the ghost Heather, “snuck into the gym, grabbed one of the baseball bats from the supply closet, then she just went crazy. Ballistic. She smashed everything she saw. Windows. Desks. . .” Heather was suspended and never went back to school.
- Riley sees visions of Heather’s death. “Her father was driving. . . She wasn’t wearing a seat belt. . . Riley could picture it. The shattered glass. The screech of tires. The body lifted, floating. Head snapping backwards. And then . . . just gone.”
- Heather’s classmates locked her in a supply closet. “[Heather] pounds and kicks, she pleads and shouts, she cusses and spits. . . She is afraid. Afraid of being stuck in this place forever. Afraid that no one will ever try to find her.”
Drugs and Alcohol
- While locked in a closet, Riley wishes she could go home and take Advil, then sleep.
- One of Riley’s teacher is “the vape master.”
- In the nurse’s office, a cabinet is “full of Adderall and Ritalin.”
- While on vacation, Riley and her friend planned to “cajole Riley’s father into letting them try a sip of beer.”
- Freaking is used in excess. For example, Riley says, “I’m stuck in this freaking school, freezing in the freaking dark, talking to a freaking frog who is also a freaking ghost!”
- Profanity is used occasionally. Profanity includes crap, hell, and piss.
- Goddam is used once.
- Occasionally, Riley calls her classmates names such as a jerk, prick, and “butt-faced jerkwads.”
- Riley imagines her classmates texting about her, saying that she “is cray cray.” Another girl says Riley is a “freak.”
- A boy tells a girl not to listen to Riley because “she’s a lunatic.”
- God, oh my God, and Jesus are used as exclamations rarely.
- Riley says, “screw this” and “screw it” several times.
- Emily thinks about telling her ex-friend’s mother that her daughter was a “terrible kiss-ass, crowd-following, spineless bystander.”
- The ghost of Heather, a girl who died while in middle school, haunts the school. By making a flashlight blink on and off, the ghost shows Riley where she wants her to go. Riley also sees visions of the ghost’s life.
- While locked in the school, Riley hears voices when no one is there, lights go on and off. In addition, Riley hears crying coming from the bathroom stall. Then black letters appear on a mirror, “Nothing to see here.”
- A ghost uses a half-dissected frog as a vessel. He tells Riley, “I thought it might be easier for you to handle if you had an actual body to talk to. Something substantial. And this was the best vessel I could get.”
- While in a hallway, Riley sees “all the dials on all the lockers started to spin. Up and down the hall. Every locker, all at once, turning one way and then the other in unison.” Then Riley hears people talking, saying that someone is a “freak, a loser, so awkward, so weird.”
- Based on her father’s stories, Riley knows that “to vanquish a ghost was to find out what it wanted, what kept it anchored to this world. Find the tie that bound it here and then cut it loose.”
- The ghost, Max, wants to destroy some letters that his ex-friend wrote to him. “Riley felt a tickle like a breath on the back of her neck before a current of air picked up the stack of letters . . . the pages shot upward and then fell back down like maple leaves.” Riley saves the letters from being burned.