I’m not sure how old I was when I first read this book, but I do remember that it was a favorite. Some parts of this have stuck with me for over twenty years, influencing how I think ghost stories should work. Having been born in 1986, I still definitely feel like we 90s kids got the best ghost stories. We had a lot of authors that we still pass on to younger generations today. I’m honestly horrified when I meet a young reader-especially of fantasy-who doesn’t know Vivian Vande Velde or Patricia Wrede. But it’s easy to remember and find those authors, it’s much harder to remember an author who didn’t have a new book out or re-released every year or so.
Pam Conrad isn’t a name I remembered, though at least one of her books, PRAIRIE SONGS, won awards. I didn’t see a group displayed at the Scholastic Book Fair, and I don’t think I’ve seen her books on any of those ‘Books I loved as a kid’ lists. I know I’ve mentioned this book, STONEWORDS, to people, but other than that, it seems pretty much forgotten, which is a total shame, because it is actually just as good as I remember.
The story is about two girls named Zoe, one of whom is the ghost from the 1800s. This is a fairly traditional children’s ghost story in the basic plot-figure out your friend is dead and try to discover a way to help her-but the details and subtleties about the modern Zoe and the eternally youthful Zoe Louise mark this short novel as exceptional. When I opened the book for the first time in years, my first thought was along the lines of ‘oh great, like I don’t get enough first person narration in online writers.’ However, this is one of those stories where you bounce between not even noticing the narration style because the descriptive language works so well, and feeling how deeply personal this whole story is to Zoe, so the narrative style seems necessary. Zoe is telling us a story about a friend she loved, even though her faults are fairly glaring. Zoe Louise is pretty bossy and spoiled, but because Zoe loves her so much, we readers can’t help but forgive her.
The language isn’t overly flowery but every description drips of nostalgia, though that may be my own nostalgia influencing the tone for me. There are lines where I had to stop and look and think ‘why didn’t I remember that?’ There are scenes that I didn’t remember, but I know influenced me greatly. This is a book with an almost entirely female cast-just PopPop and Oscar, the pug-but with a more descriptive detailing of a rotting corpse than I can recall in any Goosebumps book. When I read modern fantasy, if there’s any gore at all, it’s usually supposed to be funny or shocking. Zombies have taken all horror out of it. STONEWORDS does a good job of ripping away the cynic-goggles, because this isn’t a mindless walking corpse, and it’s not some evil necromancer or a hero working through the pain. This is just a sad and angry little girl, who doesn’t really know what’s happening.
I’ll leave it at that, because, at 130 pages, I hope at least a few of you will give this children’s book a chance. I’m glad a found a new copy of this book, because I really hope to get some of my friends reading it. I don’t know for sure that it’ll be quite as beloved without the nostalgia factor, but I think the language, at least, will make it worth their while. In the meantime, maybe I should find other books by Pam Conrad.