Friday, April 19, 2024

The Bellwoods Game by Celia Krampien

 This poignant and chilling story expands the trope of "kid turned ghost" into an adventure in friendship and fear.

The story opens with the original events of 1982, when a girl named Abigail flees from her bullies to the Bellwoods and never returns. Present-day, it's tradition for 6th graders to go into the Bellwoods and "play the game." If they ring the bell on the far side of the woods, they save the town for another year from the ghost of Abigail Snooks. Bailee is eager to play - she's been ostracized by her friend Fen, who blames her for tattling to the principal about a risky plan and getting him (and most of the school) stuck in detention.

Bailee is chosen to play, along with Fen and Carmen, a girl who skipped several grades and is alternately ignored and taunted for her intelligence. They're not alone in the woods though - they're joined by new kid Noah, who's determined to find out the truth about the game and the ghost and Bailee's former friend Madison, this year's organizer of the game, and who has been acting hot and cold towards Bailee ever since the incident.


It turns out that there is, indeed, a ghost in the woods - but Abigail is not the real danger. There is an ancient creature in the woods that grows stronger every year and only by ringing the bell can the kids truly save the town for another year. But what will happen the year after that, and after that as the creature grows stronger? Nothing can be trusted in the Bellwoods, but in the midst of the most dangerous, high-stakes game they've ever played, this group of kids will reveal their secrets and their darkest feelings. If they survive, they might not only save the town but find a new bond of friendship together. 

Black and white drawings and panels are scattered throughout the book, showing a diverse group of kids, a chilling representation of the creature in the woods, and the frightening events that ensue. The year's previous winner, Arlo, is addressed with they/them pronouns.

Verdict: This reminded me a little of Doll Bones, with its mixture of illustration, bildungsroman, and spooky events. It's a little slow-paced and more reflective than gory for horror fans, but it's beautifully written, includes relatable characters, and will certainly appeal to certain kids who like atmospheric, slightly creepy stories and are fluent enough to read and enjoy a full-length chapter book. I enjoyed reading it and have several kids in mind who I am eager to hand it to. I only buy a few middle grade novels at this point, because of the changing tastes and needs of my audience, but this will be one of them.

ISBN: 9781665912501; Published July 2023 by Atheneum; Galley provided by publisher; Purchased for the library

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