A novel for tweens and young teens, The Girl and the Ghost is based on a Malaysian folk tale. It’s much more than a simple retelling, as author Hanna Alkaf has fleshed out the story with richly drawn characters, creating a marvelous tale about friendship, family, jealousy, and love.
As the story goes, there was once a girl and a ghost (it’s the title of the book, right?). The ghost was a Malaysian pelesit, a dark spirit that needs “a master to control his appetite for destruction, his craving for chaos.” The girl, Suraya, inherited the ghost from her grandmother, an evil witch (although Suraya didn’t know it at the time as she was only a toddler when her grandmother died).
Suraya was smart, quiet, independent, and a talented artist. She was also lonely, for her father had died and her mother was careworn and emotionally unavailable:
And even when her eyes were open, there were shutters behind them that remained very definitely closed. It was as if the light inside her had burned out, and nobody had bothered to replace the bulb.
The pelesit protected Suraya from harm as she grew from a toddler into a child. She named him Pink and he became her only friend. Even though she told him not to, Pink made bad things happen to others who mistreated her. Already isolated due to poverty, she found herself even more isolated from his actions.
When Suraya was 12, her mother sent her to a better, far-off school—a place where the girls bullied her mercilessly. At this new school, though, she met a fellow book-lover named Jing Wei. Jing and Suraya were different in so many ways—Chinese, urban, well-off, Star-Wars-loving Jing vs. rural, Muslim, impoverished, media-naive Suraya. Yet they quickly became fast friends. Unsurprisingly, Pink was jealous of sharing Suraya with anyone. When he caused Jing to be injured, Suraya banished him from her life. So Pink did what comes naturally to a ghost: he haunted her, making her life miserable.
At heart, The Girl and the Ghost is a deliciously scary ghost story embedded in the Malaysian culture. Scads of macabre elements and creepy descriptions of grotesqueries will frighten most young readers—and many not so young, too. But it is also a beautifully written tale, one that slightly older or less fearful readers will find hard to put down.
What happens to poor, embattled Suraya and Pink? Does he ever reconcile himself to Jing’s presence in her life or does he continue to wreak havoc upon them both? You’ll have to read the rest of the story to find out whether Suraya—helped by her staunch, stoic friend—manages to deal with Pink and whether they uncover the mystery of his awful past.
The Girl and the Ghost
Written by Hanna Alkaf
Reviews: Kirkus (starred review)
Awards: 2020 Kirkus Prize Finalist for Young Readers’ Literature
Read a preview.
Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of 60 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, German, and Spanish into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her recent translations, Luisa: Now and Then and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens; Luisa: Now and Then was also a 2019 Stonewall Honor Book. Her most recent translations are For Justice: The Serge and Beate Klarsfeld Story, The Sisters #7: Lucky Brat, Chloe & Cartoon, Alter Ego and A House Without Windows, which she also assisted in editing.