Ghoulish Song

Ghoulish Song

4.0 1
by William Alexander

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A brave girl flees a ghoul while trying to save her city in this lively companion to Goblin Secrets, the National Book Award winner that Kirkus Reviews calls “humorous, poignant, and convincing.”

Kaile lives in Zombay, an astonishing city where goblins walk the streets and witches work their charms and curses. Kaile wants to be a


A brave girl flees a ghoul while trying to save her city in this lively companion to Goblin Secrets, the National Book Award winner that Kirkus Reviews calls “humorous, poignant, and convincing.”

Kaile lives in Zombay, an astonishing city where goblins walk the streets and witches work their charms and curses. Kaile wants to be a musician and is delighted when a goblin gives her a flute carved out of bone. But the flute’s single, mournful song has a dangerous consequence: it separates Kaile and her shadow.

Anyone without a shadow is considered dead, and despite Kaile’s protests that she’s alive and breathing, her family forces her to leave so she can’t haunt their home. Kaile and her shadow soon learn that the troublesome flute is tied to a terrifying ghoul made from the bones of those who drowned in the Zombay River. With the ghoul chasing her and the river threatening to flood, Kaile has an important role to play in keeping Zombay safe. Will Kaile and her shadow be able to learn the right tune in time?

Set in the delightful and dangerous world of Goblin Secrets, Ghoulish Song is a gripping adventure laced with humor and mystery from National Book Award–winning author William Alexander. His “graceful prose weaves an engaging fantasy that embraces the power of music” (Publishers Weekly).

Editorial Reviews

Peter S. Beagle
"In Ghoulish Song, William Alexander returns us to the fascinatingly sinister world of Zombay. As with his previous novel, Goblin Secrets, Alexander's work is startlingly original, simultaneously funny and suspenseful."
Jane Yolen
"Funny, smart, and gorgeously written."
Wall Street Journal
"With wonderful economy, Mr. Alexander conjures a vertiginous adventure shot through with humor in this clever tale."
Minnesota Post
"Gorgeously creepy“
"Kaile makes a likable heroine, at times admirably noble and at other times understandably frustrated and defiant. Her adventures are just scary enough to keep readers on edge without giving anyone nightmares."
Publishers Weekly
In this more focused companion to Alexander’s National Book Award–winning debut, Goblin Secrets, the author revisits the macabre city of Zombay to tell another tale of art as the fundamental underpinning of important magic. Kaile is a baker’s daughter who loves music. She crosses paths with a goblin who gives her a bone flute, but when Kaile plays the flute, her shadow separates from her body. Her family believes she has died (“Only the dead don’t have shadows,” her younger brother says), and Kaile is forced to leave home. While seeking the origins of the flute, so she can reunite with her frightened shadow and return to her family, Kaile instead finds her music is the key to saving the city. There is magic in almost every aspect of Alexander’s world, including the sinister sentience of the river and the bones of the drowned, and his graceful prose weaves an engaging fantasy that embraces the power of music. While this story shares its setting and basic plot with the previous book, many questions about Zombay are yet to be answered. Ages 8–12. Agent: Joe Monti, Barry Goldblatt Literary. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
"In Ghoulish Song, William Alexander returns us to the fascinatingly sinister world of Zombay. As with his previous novel, Goblin Secrets, Alexander's work is startlingly original, simultaneously funny and suspenseful."—Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn
"A vivid and fast-paced read."
Children's Literature - Kathleen Karr
"The last day of Kaile's life did not start well." From this absolute grabber of a first sentence, William Alexander's fantasy hurtles forward at breakneck speed. As well it might, for this follows his National Book Award winner, Goblin Secrets, and continues the expansion of his city of Zombay. Kaile lives in Broken Wall in the poor Southside of the city. Her mother is a baker, and Kaile wakes to the dreaded Inspection Day. But her mother is the best baker in Broken Wall, and Kaile is confident there is no way she will lose her license and end up in the dunking cage by the river. Is there? A troupe of jester ghouls and one ancient bone flute later, Mother flunks the inspection, and our heroine finds herself on the street without even her shadow! How Kaile fights her way back to life after watching her own her funeral is the crux of the tale. Along the way, she must learn respect for nearly everyone—even her little brother Snotfish. Oh, and she has to save the entire city of Zombay, too. Alexander's story about the redemption of one contrary preteen should warm the cockles of teachers' hearts, while Kaile's younger readers will be rooting for her from the start. Reviewer: Kathleen Karr
School Library Journal
Gr 5–8—In this companion to Goblin Secrets (S & S, 2012), Kaile works hard in her parents' bakery/alehouse in a river city. On Inspection Day at the bakery, she allows a goblin and his troupe to perform in the public room and is given a bone flute. When she plays the instrument, she is separated from her shadow. No shadow, no life, according to her culture, and, despite her protests, there is a funeral for her the next day. Ostracized by family and community, Kaile leaves home, with Shade at her side. The city of Zombay is an odd place filled with Rock Movers, who lose appendages doing their work and replace them with makeshift metal parts, goblins that supposedly steal children and turn them into ghouls, and a host of other strange characters. There is a dark edge to this tale, and death seems very close. The story of redemption is what gives this book its appeal, with the strange characters and places more of a distraction than an asset. Some of the situations are, well, ghoulish; Kaile visits a Reliquary, a repository for bones, many of them human, and discovers that her flute is made of a young girl's femur. At times comic, at times creepy, this unusual tale winds its music around readers' hearts.—Kathy Kirchoefer, Henderson County Public Library, NC
Kirkus Reviews
A young girl confronts her own death in the river city of Zombay with its ancient magic and new gearwork in a stand-alone companion to National Book Award–winning Goblin Secrets (2012). Young Kaile, the baker's daughter, is separated from her shadow when she lets the bone flute given her by a goblin performer play its own tune. "You might…try to discover whose bone that once was," the goblin tells her. But Kaile is forced to leave her home--she watches as her family holds a funeral for her and refuses to acknowledge her presence, convinced that the unshadowed are newly dead. Kaile, with Shade, her shadow, in tow, seeks the secret behind the bone flute. For some reason, it will only reliably play the well-known tune about a girl rumored to have drowned herself for love by leaping from the bridge into the River. And the impending River flood sounds a threatening note through everything in the city, creating the kind of urgency that has a sailing captain telling Kaile "we haven't time for pissing and whistling." When at last Kaile confronts the River's power and the collective grief of the bones of the drowned, she saves herself along with the bridge that spans the River and connects the two halves of Zombay. Alexander's storytelling is compelling and clever, and this tale of courage is by turns humorous, poignant and convincing. (Fiction. 9-12)

Product Details

Margaret K. McElderry Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.70(d)
710L (what's this?)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Ghoulish Song

  • THE LAST DAY OF Kaile’s life did not start well.

    She was up before the sun bothered to be, and fumbled a bit with her bedside lantern. The flint sparked, the wick caught, and she blinked herself awake in the sudden, violent light. Then she wound up the base and watched it turn.

    The lantern was a music box, a shadow puppet show, and one of Kaile’s very favorite things. Animals marched around the bedroom walls as it turned in a slow circle. She stared at the shadows while slowly remembering what day it was. She moved more quickly once she remembered, and scrambled out of bed. Ceramic floor tiles felt cold against the bottoms of her feet. Her own shadow climbed the wall behind her to join the marching puppets.

    Kaile opened her window. She smelled coldness and wetness in the air outside. Her arms felt bumpy when she rubbed them, but she put on a simple work dress with short sleeves that wouldn’t get in her way. Downstairs the oven was probably roaring. Downstairs it would be too warm already.

    Kaile, the baker’s daughter, closed the window and braided her hair by her reflection in the window glass. She hummed along with the lantern music, making it a tune to hold her hair together.

    The music box wound down, and the lantern stopped turning. Kaile snuffed the wick and went downstairs.

    A cloud of hot, dry air smacked into her when she opened the kitchen door. She had expected it, and was surprised by it anyway. The air also carried rich kitchen smells. It presented these various scents to Kaile with warmth and welcome. She breathed and sorted them, each from each.

    Mother peered around the far side of the oven, which was a great, big, round, red mountain of clay with many doors and baking trays set into the sides. Mother’s hair stuck up in strange places. It looked like someone had scrubbed the top of her head with the side of a sheep.

    “Take out the first batch of breakfast pies,” she told Kaile, without even saying Good morning. “They’re nearly done.”

    Kaile grabbed a wooden paddle and braced herself for opening oven doors and breathing oven air. She tried not to be annoyed. Mother had probably not slept at all. She never did before Inspection Day.

    Bakery inspections happened every year. The Guard Captain came, bought loaves of bread, and weighed them, one at a time, with his gearworked hands. If the loaves weren’t heavy and substantial enough to pass muster—or if they weren’t tasty enough—then the offending baker got locked in an iron cage by the docks and dunked several times in the River. After that the baker remained in the cage, suspended over the water, so people could laugh and jeer and throw stale breakfast rolls. The dunking went on for three days. It taught bakers not to cheat their neighbors by skimping on the substance of their bread dough.

    Kaile suspected that her mother actually loved Inspection Day. She made the best bread and ale in Southside—everyone knew it, and Mother liked to remind everyone of it. She had never been dunked in the Zombay River for skimping on her dough. Not once. So every year her unbroken record got longer, and the pressure to keep it got stronger. Some neighbors started to whisper that she was getting a bit too proud, a bit too cocky, and that every baker should be dunked at least once to remind them that it could happen to anyone. Wasn’t it just about her turn?

    Mother only ever smiled at the whispered spite. Not me, she would say. Not ever. But she wasn’t smiling now. She made grumbling and muttering noises at everything she touched. Kaile didn’t want to know what Mother was saying to the kitchen as she moved through it.

    Together they covered a countertop with breakfast pies, and filled the open shelves in the oven with pans of bread dough.

    “Where’s Father?” Kaile asked.

    “I sent him out to clean the public room,” Mother said. She wiped her forehead with a rag. It didn’t matter. It only seemed to move the sweat around.

    Kaile had helped her father clean the public room the night before. She didn’t point this out now. Instead she looked around to see what needed doing next. Inspections came only once a year, and the day went faster if she kept busy. Leftovers were also especially good after Inspection Day, so she had that to look forward to.

    She checked the windows to make sure Southside dust wasn’t getting through the cloth screen and mixing with the flour—which always happened anyway, but it was best to limit just how much dust got in the bread—and then she set to kneading dough. She hummed a kneading sort of tune to herself. The tune gave shape to what she did, and held the whole of it together.

    Kaile stopped humming and kneading when a shrill, piercing, horrible noise stabbed through the kitchen air. She covered her ears with both hands.

    Now I have dough in my ears, she noticed. I wonder if I’ll be able to get it all out.

    “Wake up, everybody!” the Snotfish shouted. His name was Cob, but the name did not suit him nearly so well as Snotfish. “Inspection Daaaaaaay, Inspection Daaaaaaaaay . . .” He marched through the kitchen and blew another note into his tin whistle. The sound made it through Kaile’s hands, and through the bread dough, and into her ears. It was even more painful than the first note.

    Snotfish’s whistle was his very favorite thing, and it had been ever since Kaile had given it to him in a moment of foolish generosity. It used to be hers. Now her little brother tried to play marching tunes with it, because the Guard used marching tunes to get used to their gearworked legs. He wanted to join the Guard when he grew old enough—if he ever did, if he managed to live so long before Mother and Father baked him into a pie to be done with him.

    Kaile took her doughy hands from her ears and prepared to say wrathful and scathing things. She wasn’t sure what she was going to say, but she took in a very big breath to make sure she would have enough air to say it with.

    Her father was faster. He tore into the kitchen through the public room door and tried to snatch the whistle away. The Snotfish resisted, and the whistle spun out of his hands and into the oven fire.

    Everyone started shouting at once.

    The Snotfish ran to the oven with a shrill, wordless cry, ready to dive inside and rescue his precious whistle. Father grabbed the boy’s arm to keep him from burning himself. Mother called down curses on the both of them.

    Kaile took the longest kitchen tongs and tried to fish out the whistle. It was far inside. She felt the fine hairs burn on her forearms. A horrible, acrid, metallic smell began to fill the kitchen.

    The shouting subsided. It was silent in the room by the time Kaile pulled out a ruined lump of tin.

    She looked at it sadly. She should have kept it. She shouldn’t have given it to the Snotfish. He never learned to play it properly, and now it would never play again.

    Father brought her a water bucket, and she dropped the tin lump inside. Hot metal hissed and steamed. That was the only noise in the kitchen.

    Mother opened the oven door and sniffed. She reached in with one hand, tore off a piece of still-baking bread, and took a bite.

    “It tastes like tin,” she said. She sounded calm. Kaile was a little bit afraid of how calm her mother sounded. “Tin does not taste good.”

    The Snotfish sniffed. Father’s eyebrows scrunched together over the top of his nose.

    “Both of you get out,” Mother said. “Please get very far away from this oven.”

    Father and the Snotfish turned and left without further protest.

    “Kaile,” Mother said, her voice still very calm. “Fetch me more water. I need to make dough. Then take everything out of the oven and throw it in a crate for the guzzards, and after that open the public room. The old men are waiting already for their domini table, I’m sure.”

    “Yes, Mother,” Kaile said, and left the kitchen. She was relieved to get away from the hot tin smell, and away from Mother’s cold-burning calm.

  • What People are saying about this

    Peter S. Beagle
    "In Ghoulish Song, William Alexander returns us to the fascinatingly sinister world of Zombay. As with his previous novel, Goblin Secrets, Alexander's work is startlingly original, simultaneously funny and suspenseful.

    Meet the Author

    William Alexander won the National Book Award for his debut novel, Goblin Secrets, and won the Earphones Award for his narration of the audiobook. His other novels include Ghoulish Song, Ambassador, and Nomad. William studied theater and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at the Clarion workshop. He teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Like the protagonist of Nomad and Ambassador, William is the son of a Latino immigrant to the US. Visit him online at and, and on Twitter via @WillieAlex.

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    Ghoulish Song 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
    gaele More than 1 year ago
    AudioBook Review: Blending a touch of steampunk into this story, Alexander seems to hit the perfect blend of pace and suspense, with a bit of darkness for tension to please a reader or listener.  While I might not be inclined to use this book as a bedtime read – it is the perfect companion for those children wanting something a little darker and scary: I can imagine this story influencing the ghost stories told in later years.  I really like Kaile, her frustrations with the ordinary are completely relatable, and her struggle to solve the flute’s mystery and save her world are cleverly crafted and easy to follow.  Other characters are as carefully constructed and introduced: with little details that foreshadow their upcoming place in the story, good or evil.   Beautifully narrated by the author, his voice is the perfect accompaniment to the story.  Small distinctions in tone and pacing to illustrate different characters, and his pacing and clarity are perfection.  Additionally, there is a discernible distinction in his tone as important plot points, hesitations and even points to remember are presented, a unique touch to self-narrated works that is often absent from other forms of audio.  This is the second in the trilogy, but the world and characters are so well defined, described and presented that having exposure to the first is not necessary: although this will encourage you to seek out the first book, it is that good.  Both parents and children will enjoy this: never clichéd, with surprising and unique creatures  this well-paced story will demand your attention until the end.  I received the audio cd’s from Simon & Schuster via AudioBook Jukebox for purpose of honest review for the Heard Word.  I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.