Spirit's Key, by Edith Cohn

Spirit's Key, by Edith Cohn (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Sept. 9, 2014, middle grade)

Many things set 12 year old Spirit apart from the others who make Bald Island their home.  She and her dad aren't natives--and outsiders never quite become true islanders.   Her dad makes a living with his gift of prophecy, and though the distrust that drove him and his daughter to the island aren't quite as bad there, still it makes them different.   But most of all, what sets Spirit apart is that she is the only one on the island to have made a dog her beloved companion.

The island is home to wild dogs.  Nobody else likes them, and many truly fear them, calling them "devil spirits." Despite this prejudice, Spirit and Sky formed a bond of great love, until his untimely death (which happened just before the book begins, mercifully for young dog lovers!).   But before she has time to finish grieving, Sky's ghost appears to her--a puppy-ish Sky, frisky and playful and loving as ever.  And he's not back just because of his affection for her.  He is a ghost dog on a mission....

Sky isn't the only dog to die--others are turning up dead as well.   When people start falling ill, the dogs are blamed for the sickness.  But Spirit is convinced that there is something more going on, and she is determined to defend the dogs.   Following ghost Sky's lead, and accompanied by a boy who might be her first real person friend, Spirit gradually uncovers the secret of what's really been happening on her island home.  And in the process, with help from the ancestors who send her help, she begins to manifest her own unique version of her family's powers.

So basically this is:

--a girl and beloved dog story
--a girl and a boy she gradually learns to trust solving a mystery story
--a girl coming into her magical powers story

all of which is wrapped up in a tidy and satisfying whole that should please 10 and 11 year old readers who like those sorts of stories very much!
What makes these disparate threads a satisfying whole is that it is also the story of a girl's fight against her community's superstitious hatred of the animals she loves.  The interweaving of superstition and true magic creates tension that drives the plot even at those time when not much in the way of Adventure is actually happening.   Spirit must fight the islander's belief in the devilish magic of the dogs, while being deeply aware that there is true magic in the world, and knowing the dogs share in it--after all, Sky is right there with her as a spirit.   

And on top of that, Spirit is caught in the tension of feeling like an outsider, but knowing that she and her father are in fact different--an uneasy place for any 12 year old to occupy, but even more so than most for Spirit!  Solving the mystery of the dying dogs resolves the conflict, bringing Spirit to a place where she is both part of the community and able to be her unique self.

Which of course is one of the most satisfying of endings for a middle grader reader.  Give this one to the girl who likes dogs, of course, but who also likes fantasy meeting real life.

(Not being a middle grade reader myself, I worried about the economic sustainability of the island, inbreeding of both dog and human populations, what the heck the dogs were eating, and whether the resolution at the end would include some sort of organized management program for the dogs.  But these are grown-upish concerns, that the target audience will probably not share!)

Here's a longer and more detailed review at Tor

Disclaimer:  review copy gratefully received from the author.


  1. This sounds like a great MG read. Thanks for the review!

  2. Bwahahaha, YES to the adult concerns of reading this book. I easily brushed these aside to enjoy the story. I like how you point out that Spirit suffers from feeling like an outsider but that she IS, in fact, different. Tough place to be indeed. Thanks for the link to my Tor.com review!

  3. Your parentheses are everything that threw me out as I was reading it too. The world building her needs definite work. But yeah, kids are going to love it.


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