The Kat Sinclair Files--Dead Air, by Michelle Schusterman

The Kat Sinclair Files--Dead Air, by Michelle Schusterman (Grosset & Dunlap, middle grade, Sept. 2015)

14 year-old Kat Sinclair's dad is the new host of Passport to Paranormal, a not-exactly-high end ghost hunting show.  When Kat is offered the chance to go to haunted places around the world with her dad for the next year, vs staying with her mom in Ohio, she chose the former (in large part because her mom had walked out on the family a few months earlier, and Kat hasn't been taking her calls).  The Passport to Paranormal's crackerjack team is all set to explore haunted tunnels in Rotterdam, and so it's off to the Netherlands.  There Kat finds out that she'll be joined in on-location schooling by Oscar, the nephew of the producer; unfortunately, they immediately loathe each other. 

But there are lots of distractions from unpleasant Oscar.  Strange things are happening to Kat in particular, and as her blog of her experiences with the show (the titular Kat Sinclair Files) gains traction, and she becomes an observer of its fandom, she becomes aware of unsettling rumors about the show.  Kat was a skeptic, but she's about to find out that ghosts--both the supernatural kind, and the metaphorical kind--are real, and both threaten the lives (and the livelihood) of the crew of P. to P. 

As Kat and Oscar become allies in solving the mysteries of P. and P., which are about to become potentially deadly, they become friends, helping each other come to terms with their own personal ghosts (Kat's mother, and Oscar's father, who doesn't know Oscar is gay).  All this going on in a swirl of actual hauntings, first in the Netherlands and then in an old prison in Belgium, and the result is  great reading for the young fan of paranormal mysteries!

The sprinkling of online chat in the text makes it especially friendly for those who like their attention spans bouncing (kids these days); although I do not need my stories broken up into digestible chunks, this did not stop me from enjoying it myself!  Fans of horror movies will find Kat a kindred spirit, fans of girl detectives will perhaps be critical of her detecting skills (pretty much non existent), but will probably enjoy the mystery none-the-less.   There's not all that much in your face horror (the ghosts are sort of off to the side most of the time) but there's enough to make it appeal to young fans of the spooky.  It's suitable for kids as young as 8 or so (no one actually dies, and there is no unpleasant ectoplasm).

Adding to the appeal is that Kat's a kid of color--her dad is black, her mom's white.  It's not a plot point, but it's made solidly clear in the text, and she's shown as the brown girl she is on the cover.   The last five Elementary/Middle grade speculative fiction books I have read for this year's Cybils Awards have all had diverse characters front and center, which is great!  Mostly brown girls, though, so I'm hoping I'll be happily surprised by other non-whitenesses as I keep reading.

I am writing this just after reading Roger Sutton's editorial at the Horn Book, continuing on at Facebook, about whether throwing characters into a book who happen to be gay, or black, or have disabilities, or other etcs, is like throwing rainbow sprinkles in, to "check off the diversity box."  So of course I had to ask myself whether I thought Oscar being gay was a rainbow sprinkle or not (and I also am of course asking myself about Sprinkling diversity in general).  I decided Oscar's sexual orientation is not a sprinkle.  The emotional situation he is in (a bad one) with regard to his father, which affects his actions and reactions, stems from the fact that he is gay (which his father doesn't know), and so although he didn't Have to be gay, and it doesn't have anything to do with the Plot, it is a perfectly reasonable part of his personal story.  

Kat's ethnicity is also not at all germane to the plot, and I wouldn't have minded her thinking about it more than she does (which is only twice in a not in depth way),  but I'm not calling her a sprinkle just because her skin color just happens to be brown and she doesn't present me with the perspective of a brown girl thinking about race while travelling in modern Europe, which would be interesting to me, but which isn't what Kat happens to be thinking about.  I do sort of see Roger's point, and I have sometimes felt I was being sprinkled at by authors, but I think at this point we need diversity in our children's books so much that I will take sprinkles on my vanilla ice-cream as better than nothing, even though I might prefer a more interesting basal frozen desert unit than vanilla ice-cream if given the choice.   I think having books where it is taken for granted that a bi-racial girl's brown dad can be a tv host, and where she herself can be the heroine of an exciting story are good books to have on hand.


  1. I like how you brought the "rainbow sprinkles" editorial into your thoughts here, Charlotte. You've added another level to looking at whether or not a book has diversity, to look at whether or not the diversity adds anything (beyond box checking). I like it!

  2. Sounds like a fun plot!

    Thanks for the link to Roger Sutton's editorial; "rainbow sprinkles" is a great line and an interesting point. I imagine most authors these days are afraid of getting comments like "why aren't there any xyz people in your book?" and so they randomly pick secondary characters and make them x, y and z. Which, I agree, is a lazy way out, but I also agree is better than not even trying to represent reality, which includes all different kinds of people.

    I liked Kelly Barnhill's comment: "I would argue that any writer setting a story in an American high school or middle school or elementary school and comes up with an all-white or all-straight cast has just not spent a lot of time in schools. And hasn’t spent very much time actually talking to children. And listening. And maybe that should change."


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