The Crossroads by Chris Grabenstein is a supernatural mystery aimed at middle grade readers. It's the first middle grade title by an author of adult mysteries and thrillers. Grabenstein's adult titles are madcap romps, though, and the transition to writing for kids seems natural for him.
The Crossroads is a fun, if somewhat unusual, title. While the main protagonist is an eleven-year-old boy, many of the scenes are told from the perspective of adult characters. And some of those characters are ghosts. The Crossroads features very short chapters (some just a couple of paragraphs), and the viewpoint skips around frequently from chapter to chapter. While the action takes place in the present, the plot is driven by a mystery 50 years in the making. The short chapters, combined with the developing mystery, make this a fast-paced, intriguing read.
The story begins when Zack's widowed father remarries, giving Zack a far-from-wicked stepmother named Judy. Judy is a children's book author, a woman who wears purple to her wedding, and doesn't know how to cook anything. Zack is a baseball fan with a rich fantasy life, haunted by memories of his rather wicked mother. After the wedding, Zack and his family move from New York City to the rural town in Connecticut where Zack's father was born. Their newly built house is near the infamous intersection of County Route 13 and State Highway 31, where a terrible accident once took place. A huge oak tree on the family's property serves as a memorial to one of the people who died in the accident. The family members soon find themselves accosted by ghosts, as well as by the living descendants of people involved in the tragedy. Zack learns that he has a pivotal role to play in bringing the situation to rest.
The Crossroads is creepily atmospheric, yet laced with humor. Zack is a likable kid, a realistic mix of regular kid who builds a treehouse and damaged son of a toxic parent. When he sees a worker who hasn't, apparently, shaved or showered in a few days, he thinks that the man looks like "a pirate or a mechanic". One of my favorite aspects of the book is the developing relationship between Zack and his well-intentioned, if wholly inexperienced, stepmother. That relationship feels real and solid, in a story where reality is often called into question. Here's an early example:
"Zack looked into Judy's eyes. She had big brown ones, the kind you see on friendly cartoon bears --the ones you can trust, not the growly, grizzly types you can't." (Page 17)
I enjoyed Grabenstein's writing. He seems to have fun with words.
"They recognized the antique automobile and knew that inside was the sole surviving member of the family that had made North Chester famous. In fact, the quaint little town was still called Clocksville, as it had been for nearly a century, because of the timepieces once mass-produced in the sprawling Spratling Clockworks Factory." (Page19)
I wonder, did he name the family Spratling just so that he could use the phrase "sprawling Spratling Clockworks Factory"? Because it's perfect.
The Crossroads is that rare middle grade mystery in which people are actually murdered (both in the past and in the present). Though, the fact that most of them hang around as ghosts softens the blow a bit. The violence has an other-worldly feel about it, and I don't think that it will scare young readers off. The scary part is the ghosts, and the truly evil old woman who drives much of the plot, rather than the deaths themselves.
I do have one quibble about the book. I found Zack's family to be unnecessarily wealthy. They move from a three bedrooms, 2.5 bath apartment in New York to a newly built Victorian with five bedrooms and five baths. There's a scene where "Zack stumbled out of bed and slogged across the soft carpet to his own private bathroom." Seems to me this might be off-putting to your average middle grade reader, and I don't see what it adds to the story to make the family so well off. Maybe this is so that the reader won't worry about them later, when they suffer a potentially significant material loss, but I'm not sure your average 10-year-old reader worries about things like that anyway.
But that's a minor point, and perhaps says more about my own biases for middle grade adventures than about the book. Overall, I think that middle grade fans of mysteries and ghost stories will gobble this one up. It's a book to read under the covers with a flashlight, one that will make you stay up late, and notice the shadows of branches moving on your bedroom walls.
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: May 27, 2008
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: The Well-Read Child (this was the review that made me want to read the book), BlogCritics, On My Bookshelf, Midnight Twilight's Book Blog
Author Interviews: Lesa's Book Critiques (more of a description of an author appearance)
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.