Old Willis Place (Hahn)

Book Reviews
Readers looking for a mystery intertwined with a ghost story will enjoy this tale of a decaying mansion, a wicked former owner, ghosts, and a series of creepy, unexplained events. The cantankerous and unreasonable owner of the mansion, Miss Willis, died in the parlor ten years ago. The mansion has been empty since then except for various caretakers on the grounds. Diana and her brother, Georgie, live on the property of the crumbling mansion and spend their time spying on the caretakers. Because of some unexplained rules, the siblings mysteriously must always remain hidden and are fearful of their puzzling secret being revealed. Diana is tempted to break the rules when a new caretaker and his daughter, Lissa, arrive. Diana and Georgie sneak into the caretaker's home and yard and "borrow" books, toys, and other items that interest them. Lissa tries to explain to her father that some of her personal items are missing, but they cannot find a reasonable explanation. Eventually Lissa glimpses Diana and accepts an invitation to meet her on the veranda of the mansion. As their friendship evolves, Lissa is surprised that Diana and her brother are only familiar with movies, songs, and books that were popular in the 1930s. She attributes their odd behavior to strict fundamentalist parents. Lissa is fascinated with the mansion and recruits a frightened, reluctant Diana to break into the house with her. The consequence of their actions releases a vindictive ghost, solves a mysterious disappearance, and unites a family. Hahn uses suspense, action, superstition, and mystery to keep readers interested. There is a delicate message of guilt, forgiveness, loyalty, and friendship, and although the story is predictable, it has a satisfying ending. (Gr. 6-8)

Some of the action is told through Lissa's diary. Most of the time this works, but it's too bad the climax is revealed this way as the device puts a barrier between readers and the action. Kids will love this anyway: it's just the right mix of chilling and thrilling. (Gr. 4-7.) —Ilene Cooper

(Starred review.) Diana and her younger brother, Georgie, have been living on the grounds of the old Willis place for oh, so long. They've seen caretakers come and go, but the new one seems different. Mr. Morrison has a daughter, Lissa, who seems to be about Diana's age. Both girls are lonely and long for a friend but Georgie reminds Diana that it's "against the rules" to have friends; that they must remain out of sight. But Lissa remains intriguing to the children. She not only has a bicycle, but she also has many books and a stuffed animal that reminds Georgie of one he once had. They share even more; Lissa, too, has suffered a huge loss. Masterfully constructed, the story shows readers the same events from the perspectives of both girls; Diana narrates, and Lissa writes in her diary. The combination builds tension, raises questions, and allows characters–and the mysteries that surround them–to unfold gradually. The story is taut, spooky, and fast-paced with amazingly credible, memorable characters. More than just a ghost story, this riveting novel is a mystery and a story of friendship and of redemption. After this tale, readers are not likely to think of ghosts in the same way. —Maria B. Salvadore, formerly at Washington DC P.L.
School Library Journal

Acclaimed novelist Mary Downing Hahn serves up great spooky fare in The Old Willis Place. Twelve-year-old Diana and her little brother, Georgie, are bound by rules. They can't have playmates or travel beyond a certain area or go into the house where Miss Willis lived and died. But when Lissa and her father move into a nearby house, Diana starts breaking the rules. She and Lissa become fast friends. When she mistakenly releases the ghost of the evil Miss Willis, Lissa comes to realize she is the only person who can rescue the children from danger. The characters are exceptionally well drawn, the pacing masterful and the climax gripping and poignant. (Ages 8 to 12)
Mary Quattlebaum - Children's Literature

Diana and Georgie have been living wild, depending only on each other. They remain hidden, never leaving the grounds and never entering the derelict house. Longing for more companionship, Diana decides to befriend the new caretaker's lonely daughter. But the friendship leads to complications and danger. When Lissa leads Diana into the old house, she unwittingly unleashes the spirit of the old woman who lived and died there. With carefully incorporated clues, the reader comes to the realization that the frightening old woman is not the only ghost. Diana and Georgie are ghosts of children who died a terrible death in that house long ago. Diana is the primary narrator, with Lissa's diary entries providing alternate views of the events. The young characters, both human and spirits, are sympathetic and believable. There is even a moral here: that love and forgiveness can lead to everlasting peace. Spooky, but with an underlying sweetness.
Kirkus Reviews

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