Stonewords, by Pam Conrad

Stonewords, by Pam Conrad (HarperCollins, 1991, middle grade, 144 pages--books sure were shorter back then...) Note: usually I have a cover picture right up here in this part. Today, for two reasons, I don't. They are at the end.

In the cemetery off in the woods by Zoe's grandparents' house was a headstone with just one word surviving--Zoe's own name. When Zoe made friends with a mysterious playmate, Zoe Louise, who appeared one day out of nowhere--capricious, willful, entertaining Zoe Louise, who vanishes into the house when playtime is done, who the grown-ups don't see--she never thought of the gravestone.

Of course, the reader makes the connection, especially since it is Underlined by the author....and realizes that Zoe Louise is ghost...

One day, Zoe follows her playmate up the forbidden back stairs off the kitchen, and makes a brief visit to the late 19th century--now she is the ghost, invisible to those around her (and not at all willing to repeat the experiment!). Just as an aside, this isn't time travel as cultural immersion experience--it's a plot element, so we don't get any sort of fully realized historical setting. Which works just fine for this particular story.

As Zoe's understanding that she and her friend are from different times becomes clearer, she realizes to her horror that Zoe Louise is going to die...and she must go back to the past, to try to prevent it....

It is both creepy and atmospheric in good ghostly fashion, but even more than that, it is one of few time travel stories I've read where the time travel builds slowly and inexorably to a terrifying climax. This growing horror is in stark contrast to the domestic details of Zoe's everyday life, and her time spent playing with Zoe Louise.

Stonewords won the Edgar Allan Poe Award, and it's clear from the reviews on Amazon that this one made a huge impression on those who read it young (of course, since it was published in 1991, there was no chance for me to do so!). I wish, though, that I had read it when I was nine or so---I wonder if I would have loved it, and I will never know.

I am not sure I would have-- it gets rather unexpectedly gruesome when Zoe Louise begins to manifest as the dead child she actually is. The other thing I'm not sure I entirely like is the fact that Zoe Louise is not exactly sympathetic. It's quite possible that she couldn't help manifesting as a corpse, but I think if you want someone to travel back to the past to save you, you should ask nicely, and not terrify them. And even when she's not a corpse, she has a streak of selfishness to her that made her not entirely likable.

So though I enjoyed this one just fine as a fast little read, I'm going to recommend instead a similar story, one that I think is even more heart-poundingly powerful--The Ghosts, by Antonia Barber. If you are one who loves Stonewords, do try to get hold of The Ghosts and tell me what you think!

In the meantime, I have added the sequel to Stonewords, Zoe Rising, to my timeslip tbr list....

The marjority of the covers for Stonewords are all so unappealing to me that I am putting them here at the end. Zoe never finds a skeleton glove, and when I myself go through a door in ghostly form, I don't do a marionette imitation. And the third one is rather unattractive, and quite frankly, boring.

But take a look at this one, the Puffin paperback edition of 1994:

Zoe is shown as a kid of color! I quickly thumbed through the book to see if she is ever described physically in any way, and I didn't see anything...so kudos to whoever designed this cover for not defaulting to white!!!!

Although the portal of light doesn't work for me. If it's ever reissued, my suggestion would be to develop the metaphor of the title, and have the gravestone on the cover...


  1. I remember reading this! (The hideous gray cover for me.)

    I preferred Margaret Downing Hahn's Time for Andrew. It also has time travel to save someone's life, but not the horror aspect.

    1. thanks for the recommendation--I'll add it to my list!

  2. Those covers really are unfortunate. With so many chances to get it right, you'd think they could give it more thought...

  3. LOL--agreed, but just what *do* you do when you go through a door in ghostly form?

    Great review; I want to read both The Ghosts and Stonewords.

  4. I slide gracefully???

    Do let me know if you end up reading The Ghosts!

  5. Re the book covers--too funny! A character went through doors in a book I read recently, Perhaps Tom's Midnight Garden? I'm pretty sure he slid through sideways. That makes more sense to me. :)


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