Ghost Town, by Richard Jennings (Houghton Mifflin, 2009, upper middle grade/YA, 165 pp).
When its factory closed, the life began to drain away from Paisley, Kansas. Family after family moved away, until the only two people left in town are 13 year-old Spence Honesty and his TV addicted mother. And Spence's imaginary friend, Chief Leopard Frog, bad poet and carver of talismans.
One lonely day, the rabbit Chief Leopard Frog carved for Spence asks to be photographed. So Spence digs out his father's old camera, and begins to shoot picture after picture of life in a town where everyone has left. And in the some of the pictures appear the people who once lived there, most often pictures of Maureen, the older girl who had lived next door, who once, unforgettably, lifted her shirt for Spence (this is the one incident that makes this perhaps not entirely suitable for younger middle grade readers--Spence matter-of-factly describes what lay beneath). Not every picture Spence takes is populated, but a few from every role of film bring back the people who have gone.
"There were many lovely compositions featuring flowers and mushrooms and mailboxes; a rather formal portrait of the Shiba Inu family standing on their front porch without a single smile among them; a couple of action shots of the Foos engaged in repairing a vacuum cleaner, and a full roll of exposures of Maureen.
That's when I knew for a fact how lonely I was." (page 100)
In the meantime, Chief Leopard Frog has found an unlikely outlet for his poetry and carvings (marketed as bad luck charms) via Uncle Milton's Thousand Things You Thought You'd Never Find, and is well on his way to fame and fortune...and the media, in the form of a young woman hoping for a breakthrough of her own, has come knocking on the one door of the one home left in Paisley.
The imagined and the longed for and the real converge...and Spence, Paisley, and Chief Leopard Frog will never be the same.
Here's Spence, musing about the old saying, "be careful what you wish for:"
"...I think it means that if you're wishing you had excitement in your life and all of a sudden you're dealing with the bruised egos of sensitive imaginary Indians, and the sudden bursting forth of motherly behaviour by a former television vegetable, and the unannounced arrival of a smart-aleck cutie-pie way too old for you, and letters from modern-day pirates of the Caribbean, not to mention notes from girls who once lived next door and the occasional unexplained photograph of a vanished person, well, it's like that other old saying that goes, "It's either feast of famine." (pp 123-124).
It's a funny, sweet, magical book.
Even though on paper this might seem easily classifiable as "fantasy," what with ghost images appearing in pictures and an imaginary friend who seems rather more real than most, I don't think that label quite suits this story. Spence is an unreliable narrator (I think)* with a great imagination, and the dreamlike pictures of the people he is missing so badly are never seen by anyone else.
So this isn't a book I'd give to someone who is looking for fantasy style "magic." I'd be most quick give it to a sensitive, introverted eleven or twelve year old, although I don't by any means think its appeal is limited to just that demographic. For instance, I'm going to pass this one on to my husband, something I don't often do with middle grade/ya fantasy books. But the quality of the writing, the rather brilliant portrayal of Spence in his lonely adolescent state, and the lovely mixture of poignancy and humor make this a book many grown-ups (like my husband, I hope, and me, I know) will appreciate very much.
Note on Chief Leopard Frog: I had my doubts about whether the inclusion of an imaginary Native American Chief was a good idea, or whether it would be offensively stereotypical. I think Jennings managed to avoid the latter...but I'd be curious to hear from anyone else whose read this!
*This is one of the things I would talk about if I were running a discussion about this book (and I think it would be a great book club choice) -- here's an unreliable narrator (whose last name is, ironically (?) Honesty), who is making things up like crazy but who is actually incredibly honest in his self-assessment, who is bent on documenting, in his photography, the reality of his abandoned town, except that there are ghost images, and who never actually lies to the narrator. Except for maybe once.
And there are so many lovely metaphors too, subtly tucked away in the story...Lots to talk about!
Here are other reviews and remarks, at Guys Lit Wire, The Happy Nappy Bookseller, and Chasing Ray.