Belladonna Johnson can see ghosts. It's a trait she's inherited from her mother's side of the family, like blue eyes or straight hair. And it's a trait she could do without, because what twelve-year-old wants to be caught talking to someone invisible?
It is convenient, though, after Belladonna's parents are killed in a car accident. They can live with her the same as always, watching the same old TV shows in their same old house. Nothing has changed . . . until everything changes.
One night, with no warning, they vanish into thin air—along with every other ghost in the world. It's what some people think ghosts are supposed to do, but Belladonna knows it's all wrong. They may not be living, but they're not supposed to be gone.
With the help of her classmate Steve, a master of sneaking and spying, Belladonna is left to uncover what's become of the spirits and to navigate a whole world her parents have kept well-hidden. If she can't find her way, she'll lose them again—this time for good.
About the Author
Helen Stringer grew up in Liverpool, England, and currently lives in Northern California. Here in the U.S., she studied film, winning several student film awards, and was a Directing Fellow at the American Film Institute Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies. She is the author of Spellbinder and The Midnight Gate.
Read an Excerpt
By Helen Stringer
Feiwel and FriendsCopyright © 2009 Helen Stringer
All rights reserved.
The Vanishing Baby
It was Wednesday. The day of the week when it feels like Friday will never arrive. And it was cold. Not cold enough for snow, but that autumn cold — bright and bitter, the wind sharp with the promise of winter. It was no day to be outside. It was a day to be inside, curled up on the couch with a steaming mug of hot chocolate.
But it was Wednesday, so Belladonna Johnson was not curled up on the couch, she was walking to school, her old pink backpack slung over one shoulder, the sad remnants of the fake-fur edging on the hood of her coat clumping into spikes in the morning mist, and her eyes fixed on the pavement beneath her feet.
She stopped when she reached the end of the road and looked up. Her hair hung like two lank black curtains on either side of her face, and her dark blue eyes peered out from behind the strands, like a jungle animal peering from the undergrowth.
They were already there. Lining up on the pavement outside the school, waiting for the bus. And they were all pretty happy about it, from the look of things.
Belladonna hesitated for a moment, then trudged on, her eyes back on the ground. She hated school trips. She hated the run-down buses they had to take, the screaming and laughing of her classmates, the stapled worksheets they were supposed to complete at the end, and the fact that you never knew who — or what — you might meet.
It hadn't always been that way, of course. There was a time when she had felt the same as everyone else — that any excuse to get out of school was good. Even last term when the whole class thought they were going to Robinson's biscuit factory only to discover they were off to Dennison's assembly plant: a gray stone building full of hermetically sealed, spotless rooms where rows of men and women put PCs together. (They all liked using computers, but there's nothing particularly interesting about watching a bunch of miserable-looking people building them.) And this time the trip was definitely going to be to Arkbath Hall. It had been organized by Mr. Watson, the History teacher, and he wasn't a bait-and-switch kind of guy.
And that made it worse.
Belladonna sat down on the crumbling low stone wall confining the collection of scrubby bushes and weeds that half concealed the entrance to the school. She pushed her hood back and lowered her backpack onto the wet pavement. It would be all right, she thought, if she could tell the difference. But she couldn't, and she lived in fear of someone (Sophie Warren, in particular) catching her talking to nothing. She bit her lip and racked her brain for an excuse that would convince Mr. Watson that she'd be better off going to see the school nurse.
It seemed to take forever. Belladonna could feel the chill from the cold stone wall working its way into her bones, and even the boisterous conversations of the other kids began to subside as they shivered in the October air, the wind whipping around the girls' pink knees, and the boys remembering that school uniform trousers are anything but substantial. It was nearly a quarter past nine before the ancient green city bus rolled up to the curb and Mr. Watson left the cozy confines of the staff room and strode down the path to herd his charges aboard.
Mr. Watson was only about thirty and imagined that the kids thought he was rather cool. They didn't, of course. To them, he seemed terribly old, with his steadily increasing bald spot, dismal ties, and graph-paper-patterned shirts. He tried to make History entertaining, but most of his students weren't really interested. For twelve-year-olds, the events leading up to the Civil War were dull as dishwater, and Charles I gave every impression of deserving what he got. (Though it seemed to be taking a long time to get to that part — beheadings are far more fascinating than acts of Parliament.)
Belladonna watched as everyone else clambered onto the bus, chatting and yelling. Once they were all packed in, Mr. Watson looked around and saw her sitting on the wall.
"Come on, Johnson," he said cheerily, "all aboard!"
Belladonna got up and walked over to him. "I don't think I can go, Sir," she whispered. "I don't feel very well."
Watson looked at her for a moment. She gazed back, her chin slightly lowered and her eyes tilted up toward the teacher. This, she knew, had the general effect of making her eyes seem huge and sad, like one of those big-eyed children with a single plastic tear on the cheaper sort of greeting cards. She could tell that he wasn't buying it this time, though. Six months ago he would have let her go, but it had been nearly a year since the accident and Belladonna had noticed that all the adults around her had apparently decided that it would probably be best if they tried the "life goes on" approach.
"Nonsense, Johnson," he said finally. "It's not like we're headed across the Sahara. This should be fun. Right up your alley, I would've thought."
And with that, he hustled her onto the bus.
Belladonna took a seat near the front and settled down to gaze miserably out of the streaky window. The bus lurched forward and the cacophony of voices rose to a crescendo as Steve Evans stole Tim Bradon's glasses again. Mr. Watson tried in vain to quiet everyone down, making appeals for dignity, safety, and the driver's hearing. Nothing worked.
The bus trundled through the early morning streets, past rows of tiny shops and the vast parking lots of mega-markets. Other schools full of other children whizzed by in a blur of concrete and brick. Finally, the buildings were gone, and mowed, golden fields stretched out on either side as they pulled into a winding, tree-lined drive.
Belladonna looked glumly out of the window as the lopsided black-and-white form of the half-timbered Arkbath Hall crept out from behind a knot of trees. The mullioned windows gazed blankly across the long-dry moat as the bus clanked to a standstill in the tiny car park. The kids piled out and waited while Mr. Watson counted them, before they all trudged across the lawn, crispy with frost, toward the ancient manse.
They stopped in front of a massive black gate, and Mr. Watson pressed the doorbell. He turned and looked out over his charges, suddenly nervous.
"Now, I want — for God's sake, Evans, give the boy his glasses back! — I want you all to behave yourselves. Arkbath Hall was built in the late fifteenth century —"
"Sixteenth," muttered Belladonna.
"Sorry? Yes, very good, Johnson, the late sixteenth century. Quite right. Anyway, it's very old, so I don't want any of you touching anything. Is that clear?"
"I said: Is that clear?"
Twenty-eight dreary voices said, "Yes, Sir," in unison, though not one of them sounded even remotely like it had heard what Mr. Watson had said.
He looked at their faces as their attention wandered to the building, the grass, and the snail on the path. Belladonna suspected that in his quiet hours Mr. Watson despaired for the future of the country.
A small door set into the much larger one opened and a round, red face protruded.
"Are you the group from Dullworth's?" it asked.
"Yes!" Mr. Watson seemed relieved to have another adult to speak to. "Yes, we are. I'm George Watson."
He held out his hand. The owner of the round face stepped outside, revealing the rest of himself to be pretty much spherical as well. The buttons on his Historic Homes uniform stretched across his ample belly, giving the impression that he had been a tad more svelte when he had originally been measured for it.
"How many are there?" he asked, as if talking about bags of potatoes.
"Twenty-eight," said Mr. Watson.
The round man didn't seem pleased, but held the door open while the children marched inside, counting them off with a small shiny counter in his left hand. Belladonna was the last one through. She looked at the round man and idly wondered why he needed a mechanical device to count to twenty-eight. He seemed to curl his lip a little as she stepped through, but she thought that was probably just her imagination.
Once through the door, there was a short, darkened archway that led through to a wide, bright courtyard. In the center of the yard were two massive trees, each with a vast tangle of branches reaching up and out toward the thin autumn sun. Mr. Watson explained that they were yew trees and that yews were either male or female, so you needed to have both. The round man cleared his throat in an annoyed manner and Mr. Watson immediately stepped aside, rather embarrassed, to let the round man do his bit.
"Yew trees," he announced in an automatic whine, "were used to make longbows. Which is, of course, why they were grown inside the walls of the house and/or castle."
Everyone looked at the trees for a moment. Then Sarah Tisdale raised her hand.
"Yes?" said the round man.
"Is it true that you have a ghost?"
"Sarah ..." Mr. Watson stared, and Sarah slowly took her hand down.
The round man had heard the same question a thousand times before.
"Yes," he said in a voice that conveyed his utter contempt for the questioner while also communicating his profound regret over his career choice. "There is a haunted chamber."
"Which we will see eventually," he added. "But first — the kitchens."
He led the way through a door at the far end of the courtyard, while talking about the sequence of construction and the family that built it only to lose their possessions as a result of some less-than-wise investments in merchant ships to the New World, and how that family was replaced by another family that had the wisdom to refrain from dabbling in international commerce, but had the misfortune of being Catholic during the reign of Elizabeth I, when such allegiances were regarded as somewhat less than acceptable.
It was all quite interesting, but no one heard a word that he said as he marched on toward the kitchens, nattering away, with his back resolutely turned to his audience. By the time they arrived in the kitchens, everyone's attention was starting to wander and carefully licked fingers were stretching toward the enormous sugar loaf that served as the chief decoration of the long central table.
"Don't touch that!"
The fingers shot back, while those who had managed to scratch off a bit of brown sugar grinned at each other conspiratorially. The round man glared for a moment, then directed their attention to the cavernous fireplace and the great black meat spit.
Belladonna looked around nervously, hanging back near the door. She knew that most of the other kids thought she was very strange, but because she was also the survivor of a Tragic Event, they didn't give her a hard time. They just left her alone and stared at her when she wasn't looking, which was actually worse than being the constant target of teasing. At least then she would have felt that she belonged, that she was there, but instead she spent most of her time alone, reading her books and wondering who was real and who was not.
The tour moved on. The round man led the way down a narrow hallway and into a dark, paneled room with equally dark furniture pushed against the walls, then they were off down the hall again and into a bright room with a beautiful plaster ceiling and huge bay windows that were raised like small stages. The sun streamed across the faded carpet and even Belladonna was tempted into the middle of the room and over to the big mullioned windows.
The round man told them all about the ceiling and the small stained-glass coats of arms and then led the way out into the hall and up a narrow, twisting staircase. The clatter of twenty-eight pairs of feet followed him up the stairs and into another long, narrow hallway. They went into a small bedroom, followed by a large bedroom with a vast four-poster bed, and finally into a room with a concealed priest's hole (fascinating), another four-poster bed, and a cradle.
By this time Belladonna had forgotten about wishing she was back at school and was as eager as anyone else to peer through the small piece of glass into the priest's hole, imagining what it must have been like to crouch there listening to the tramp of military feet searching the house for heretics. And she, like everyone else, just had to see exactly how hard the mattress was on the four-poster bed.
"And, of course, this is the haunted room," intoned the round man.
Everyone stopped poking about and turned to listen.
"In 1632 the Lady Mary was in this room with her baby, waiting for her deadbeat gambling husband to come home, praying that he hadn't gambled away their home. ..."
The children were hanging on his every word. The round man loved this part.
"Finally, after two days on the town, she saw him come riding home, around that clump of trees right there. ..."
Everyone peered out of the window. Mr. Watson stood leaning against the door and rolling his eyes.
"She knew what he'd done, and unable to take the shame of being thrust into poverty ..."
He paused for effect. Twenty-eight sets of eyes grew wider by the second.
"She opened the window, flung the baby into the moat, and leapt in after it. And they say ..."
He paused for effect again, lowering his voice almost to a whisper.
"They say she haunts the room to this very day, sitting at the window and rocking the cradle ... waiting for her husband to return."
Silence. Everyone looked at the cradle.
The round man straightened up and grinned. "Right, then. Let's go and see the Great Hall. Follow me!" He marched cheerily through the swarm of children and out of the door.
Mr. Watson straightened up. "Okay," he said matter-of-factly, "it's just a story. It has nothing to do with history. Come on. Away from the window."
Embarrassed giggles, shoves, and whoops as everyone pretended that they thought it was all stupid and had never been fooled even for a moment. Mr. Watson herded them out and set off after the round man.
They had all left the room before Belladonna realized they had gone. She was still at the window, looking down into the long-dry moat. She turned around and, with a leap in the pit of her stomach, realized she was alone. She hurried to the door, but it was too late.
"It wasn't like that, you know."
The voice wasn't angry or outraged, it just stated a fact. "The baby had gone months before. Croup, it was."
Belladonna turned around slowly.
There, near the window, was a young woman wearing a dark velvet dress decorated with pearls, a red sash, and a huge lace collar. Above the collar rose a swanlike neck ending in a beautiful oval face surrounded by shining blond ringlets.
"And honestly, do you really think a grown person could squeeze themselves out of that window?"
Belladonna Johnson shook her head slowly. "It is rather small."
"Of course it is," smiled Lady Mary. "What a sensible girl you are."
"Thank you," said Belladonna, staring at her shoes.
There was an awkward pause.
"Ah," said Lady Mary, suddenly understanding, "this is all a bit new to you, isn't it?"
Belladonna nodded and glanced up. Lady Mary was staring out of the window again, and when she looked back, she seemed troubled.
"The thing is," she said, "William is gone."
Belladonna stared at her. Lady Mary looked a bit exasperated and gestured toward the cradle.
"William," she repeated, "the baby. He vanished two days ago."
Belladonna nodded in what she hoped was a sage and knowing manner, because she had no idea where Lady Mary was going with this. Mary tossed her seventeenth-century curls in annoyance.
"Look, just let the Spellbinder know. She'll know what to do."
Whatever Belladonna had been expecting Lady Mary to say, it wasn't that. But she didn't have much time to think, as the round man suddenly appeared in the doorway.
"Hey, you!" he said. "Everyone's waiting for you downstairs."
Belladonna turned back to Lady Mary, who waved her away with a long, pale hand.
"Horrible little man," she muttered. "In my day, I wouldn't have let the likes of him cross the threshold. Off you go."
Belladonna turned and walked to the door. She glanced back to see if Mary was still there. She was.
"Don't forget to tell the Spellbinder about the baby!"
Belladonna nodded and followed the round man down the stairs, through the Great Hall, and out to the car park.
Excerpted from Spellbinder by Helen Stringer. Copyright © 2009 Helen Stringer. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsChapter 1: The Vanishing Baby,
Chapter 2: Elsie,
Chapter 3: The Hound,
Chapter 4: A Ham Sandwich,
Chapter 5: The Door,
Chapter 6: The Other Side,
Chapter 7: The Sibyl,
Chapter 8: Draconite,
Chapter 9: The Eidolon Council,
Chapter 10: Casting a Circle,
Chapter 11: The Yarrow Street Ghost,
Chapter 12: The Green Box,
Chapter 13: Night Ravens,
Chapter 14: The House of Mists,
Chapter 15: The Name of the Darkness,
Chapter 16: Home,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was a cute book that I read in a few hours, as I didn't want to set it down. Belladonna makes a good heroine, and I enjoyed her growing friendship with Steve and how they learned to work together. They were joined in their adventure by Elsie, one of the few remaining ghosts left. One minor thing that annoyed me is how almost every child in YA fiction would rather jump into the deep end rather than ask adults for help. Granted, Belladonna's grandmother and aunt kept blowing her off when she tried to talk to them, but I'm sure they would have listened had she told them the important information! I did like that Belladonna, Steve, and Elsie did not have all the answers and seemed like believable 12 year olds, getting cranky when things didn't work out and bickering at each other when they were frustrated and tired. Even though Elsie was a ghost, she was still a girl and I enjoyed the trio's growing friendship. Gave this one a 4/5 rating as I enjoyed the story, liked the characters, and thought that overall it was well done. There were a few references I'm not sure the 9-12 age group would understand (Paladin, the Wild Hunt, oracles, etc.) but they can always check online. I'm looking forward to a sequel, as Ms. Stringer left the ending open enough for another adventure! If you enjoy YA books at all, I recommend this one!
4.5 Spellbinder is complex, interesting, and way beyond the average middle grade read. Helen Stringer incorporates a great deal of mythology to make her story work, but it's never overwhelming or confusing. She flawlessly mixes mythology into Belladonna's journey to save her parents and return the ghosts to the world, while giving the reader a great deal to ponder, in regards to life, death, and everything that comes after. Belladonna is everything a normal 12 year old girl should be, aside from the small detail that she can see ghosts, and is very cut off from others because of it. Her parents are dead, but she lives with them, going about her everyday life with ghost parents. Sure, they still chat with her and can even cook for her, but they can't touch her and no one outside her family knows they're there. That kind of existence is rather depressing; and when Belladonna's parents disappear, she could easily close herself off, but she doesn't. She fights. Along with her is Steve Evans, her always-in-trouble classmate. Where Belladonna is rational and obviously intelligent, Steve is sarcastic, rude, and surprisingly inventive. This otherwise dark story is lightened by Steve's joking. Whenever Belladonna seems down, he tends to lift her up. Their back and forth dialogue is one of the strongest aspects of the book. Belladonna and Steve are supported by a few ghosts, some riddles, a magical ruler, and an overall compelling plotline. Each little detail comes back into play for the climax, and while the finale isn't action-packed and beyond thrilling, it left me happy with the end result. Spellbinder is a must-read for fans of ghosts, fantasy, or just all-around great middle grade stories. Anyone could enjoy it with its strong, lively characters (even the dead ones are lively) and original premise. The story starts off a bit slow, but is unlike any other ghost story out there. Helen Stringer has infused Spellbinder with a lot of heart and it shows. I'll be reading the sequel, The Midnight Gate, very soon!
This book will wake you want to read more and more till the very end the book is great to read with your family this book will not make you never read again if you do not like this type of book once you read spellbinder it will change your idea of a great book so bind yourself around spellbinder today you will not be sorry
This is a very entertaining book filled with delightful characters engrossed in unstoppable action. Belladonna Johnson sits down to breakfast everyday with the spirits of her dead parents. Unlike her friends, she can see all the dead spirits in her town. That is until they start to disappear before her eyes. She will need all the help she can get from her classmate, Steve, who's major accomplishment so far is his penchant for getting in trouble. They follow the lost souls to the Land of the Dead, where Belladonna and Steve must master new found skills in magic and find new depths of courage to free the imprisoned spirits. The book is very well written. The action scenes and the dialogue flow smoothly and naturally, being well suited to hold the interest of older children and young adults. A great ghost tale for Halloween.
This book was soooooo amazing or as i said like ten seconds awsimetastic
This is my favorite series and it is awesome
This book is amazing!!!!! i couldnt put it down
I love it and cant wait to read the third book
Vou mesesos de lae moei ¿pinu g¿, lose de nook coloiy,mesesos , elo bisada, de mune loe caniy!
Is this book good or bad?