I first heard about this book from Charlotte and was intrigued enough to go reading multiple interviews (and enter giveaways) before I asked my library to buy it so I could read it. I’m glad I did!
Texting the Underworld by Ellen Booraem. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2013.
Conor is a scaredy-cat, so afraid of change that he’s deliberately not-quite-failing pre-algebra, to avoid the risk of leaving his neighborhood school for the prestigious Boston Latin School and asks his little sister, Glennie, for help with spiders. One night he spots a banshee, Ashling, outside his bedroom window. He knows from Grumps’ stories that seeing a banshee means that someone in his family is going to die soon. But Ashling is vivacious and curious – she’s doing work as a banshee to earn a new life for herself after an early death over a thousand years ago. She wants to go to middle school with Conor before settling down to work. This leads to hilarious situations, as Ashling uses the knowledge gained from Conor’s Trivial Pursuit cards to make her way through school.
Conor is pretty sure, though, that Ashling’s there either for Grumps or Glennie, and losing a family member is even more unacceptable than going to Latin School. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect his family, even travelling to the Other Land to ask three questions of the Lady (with home back-up from his best friend, Javier.) Everyone is surprised when the Other Land is not just the Irish underworld they were expecting, but a massive clearinghouse for souls operated by the underworld gods of every tradition that has an underworld, including my favorite, the Babylonian god Nergal. The ending is bittersweet, with an unexpected twist.
Conor is a rare fantasy hero, a genuinely ordinary boy dealing with high-level supernatural powers. I loved the way he was able to face his fears to save his family. The humor and the thoughts about loss balance each other nicely, leaving a book that’s both funny and thoughtful without tipping either into heaviness or fluff. I also very much enjoyed Ashling, who stays unapologetic about her 9th century values even as she’s trying to make her way in the 21st. The message about the value of other cultures (in this case, other than Irish) is more subtle, but still there. The focus on death might make this a little difficult for younger middle grade readers – but I’d highly recommend it for older middle grade and up, especially to kids interested in mythology.