The Time of the Fireflies, by Kimberley Griffiths Little (Scholastic July 2014, middle grade), is great Southern gothic time travel for the young--give this one to your handy nine year old girl who likes things a spooky and she will just eat it up, and remember it for her lifetime.
Larissa's family has been plagued by misfortune...untimely death and disaster have visited every generation for a hundred years. Larissa herself almost died in an accident that left her face badly scared...and still the curse goes on.
But then a phone call comes--on an antique phone unconnected to any land line. And the girl on the other end of the line tells Larissa to trust the fireflies, and follow where they lead. And she does, crossing the uncrossably dilapidated bridge to the island where her family's plantation house once stood. There she sees her great, great-grandmother, Anna, the spoiled daughter of the house, take for her own the beautiful doll that was given to another girl, Dulcie, daughter of the housekeeper. The doll still sits in Larissa's family's antique shop, labeled "not for sale."
As Larissa follows the fireflies on more journeys across the bridge, and more mysterious messages come to her from the girl on phone, she sees the doll handed down from mother to daughter, and learns more of the tragedies that have befallen her family. Larissa has never much liked the doll, but now it seems to grow in sentience and malevolence. But just as she understands the curse, it strikes again, threatening the life of her mother and unborn sibling. Can Larissa put things to rights before it is too late?????
Well, yes, because this is a children's book, but the journey to that point is a scary and creepy one. And there aren't just supernatural challenges of curses and time slipping to deal with--Larissa must lay to rest her own personal ghosts, and come to terms with the accident that left her scared, and the girls who were responsible.
It's all very satisfying, and just gothically horrible enough to be creepy without being truly the stuff of nightmares. I liked it much more than I did the somewhat similar books I couldn't stand to re-read when I was the target-audience age--Jane-Emily, by Patricia Clapp, and A Candle in Her Room, by Ruth M. Arthur--and I don't think this is because I am somewhat older now. Here there are the fireflies, with their time-slip magic, and the girl on the other end of the line, exerting a force for good and giving reason to hope, and here also there is hope and progress being made in the real world, as Larissa learns to forgive and accept friendship from one of the girls who wronged her.
The time travel, too, with its "excursion to the past" feel, strikes just the right balance between being scary (Larissa comes close to real physical danger) and being magically nifty the way of my favorite sort of time travel, with the old house appearing all shiny and new where there's a ruin in the present.
And the discovery of treasure at the end (which any older reader will guess pretty quickly is going to be found) makes the already happy and resolved ending even happier. I do like a nice treasure.
On a somewhat tangential note, the way the author dealt with the legacy of slavery was rather interesting--to the adult reader, it's easy to assume that the servants Larissa sees in the past, like Dulcie, the girl who was given the doll, are the descendant's of the plantation's slaves, but there aren't any physical descriptors, and slavery isn't mentioned until a considerable ways into the book. It would probably have gone over my own nine-year-old head, used as I was to living in an all-white world (the Oporto British School in northern Portugal in the 1970s wasn't a hotbed of diversity) and busily reading English books with their built-in, all-white, class system. And I wonder if it is better to make race clear from the get go, or if Kimberley Griffiths Little's approach is more useful to the larger cause of opening kids' imaginations-- not to say "a black man" but simply "a man," and to let people imagine whatever they imagine, and then bring in the fact of plantation slavery in clear enough terms that even 9 year old me would have had (I think) an ah ha moment...and maybe not have defaulted to white as much next time around.
On the other hand, I would have accepted unquestioningly back then the fact that the curse came from Caribbean voodoo-ish magic; now I find myself somewhat uncomfortable with that.
But regardless, I thought it was very good book (I would like to spend more time in the present with Larissa and the sundry family, friends, and townsfolk, even without time-sliping), and I'm happy to recommend it. Although not to girls who have large fancy dolls in their rooms that are already giving them the creeps.