I did not read Ghost Squad when I was young, as it did not yet exist! This is a 2020 release, and I feel that I would have liked it very much when I in third/fourth grade. There’s magic, monsters, hijinks, and plenty of cat-content that would have kept me giddy throughout. I worried at first that this tale might be “heavy” for a middle-grade reader; it starts with some genuine adult anxieties and perils. We open with the financial woes of Lucely’s father- the bank is going to repossess the family home if he can’t make a HUGE payment by the end of the month. He’s a single dad, who just spent a ton on fixing up the house after a hurricane tore through St. Augustine, and his Ghost Tour business has been threatened by outside interlopers. He’s also had two huge losses as of late: his wife abandoned the family, and he can no longer see ghosts.
I’ll come back to the ghosts – don’t you worry!
After being briefly daunted by the state of Lucey’s world, I put on my big-girl pants to push my own anxieties out of the way. Countless children are in Lucely’s position all over our country. They have lost or about to lose places to call home, they don’t know where the next round of groceries will come from – nor do they know if they’ll come again, and they are shouldering all of these adult issues while still facing down the enchanted forest of childhood as well. Kids are incredibly resilient, thank goodness, and they are also involved in all of our adult woes no matter how hard we try to shield and protect them. Lucely’s dad puts on a brave and cheerful front, but Lucely is an expert eavesdropper and an intuitive person. I also went back and thought of all the terrors that have been a part of children’s lit since children’s lit became a thing! Fairy tales are full of torture and doom, Bridge to Terabithia is a heart breaker, Harry Potter is full of sacrifice and loss, and I won’t even TOUCH Where the Red Ferns Grow! Kids are aware of the negativity of the world no longer what we do- and the children who see themselves in Ghost Squad deserve to be known- and the classmates who do not share their circumstances need to be bathed in empathy all day, every day.
Any who- ghosts!
Lucely is surrounded by the ghosts of her loved ones. They appear to her as fireflies in a jar, and their spirits are tied to the old willow tree in the family’s yard (what happens to the ghosts if they lose the house! aaah!). The spirits are a collection of aunties, cousins, and her beloved abeula, Mamá. Mamá is Lucely’s father’s mother. She’s a powerful and comforting matriarch. Lucely’s father used to be able to see ghosts as well, but he has since lost the ability. Lucely’s ghost family occupy her entire life. They are around the breakfast table, in the halls at school, in her bookbag, and in her heart at all times. Lucely’s Mamá came to St. Augustine from the Dominican Republic, and her spirit is now tied entirely to the home that they may be about to lose.
What could be a bleak story of loss and doom quickly becomes fun family adventure that also makes you think! Ghost Squad is a cute story of friendship, family, and literal “girl power” that also hides commentary on intergenerational trauma, financial woes, and the dark histories of both America and the larger world.
Something is going on with Lucely’s ghosts, and she needs the help of her best friend Syd if she’s going to save her ghosts- and maybe the entire town at large! Lucely and Syd are a great pair. They are both the Nancy Drews (Nancies Drew?) of this story. They are clever, creative, empathetic, and encouraging. When one stumbles, the other lifts her right back up. Syd’s parents are members of a jazz band and her grandmother runs an occult shop. Syd’s grandmother, Babette, lives in an incredible old house only reachable by canoe or rickety bridge. The shop is in her house, but that’s not all: she has a secret room full of books and tools that might actually be REAL MAGIC! AHHH!
I love Babette. I want to be her when I grow up. She’s 0ne of those grandmas who knows what you are going to do before you even think about it. She’s strict but sweet, tough but sentimental, and a total fashionista. She is full of information: family history, Florida history, magical practices, witchcraft lore, and eighties movies! Her house is also the home to a great many cats, all of whom are named after characters from The Goonies. Chunk, a big white cat with a big belly and an even bigger heart, is in the race for my favorite character.
This book is chock-full of references that will click with most millennials. Claribel A. Ortega wears her geek cred with honor, and this book is stuffed with references to 80s movies, old Nintendo games, jokes about Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and spells and situations straight out of Harry Potter. I caught nostalgic pings from all of these references, but I wonder how many other things I missed. I’m a white lady from suburbia, and I wonder how many callbacks to growing up Latinx went right over my ignorant head. It’s not on Ortega to make up for my lack of knowledge- the fault here is mine. I wish more books like Ghost Squad had been been around when I was young. I wish books like this were part of regular curriculums, so that kids could both see themselves in Lucely and her family and learn about cultures outside of their own. Frequently, when we see media outside of the systemic white narrative, we only see suffering.
Ghost Squad may be built around loss, but it’s really a celebration of joy. We need to see more Lucelys, Syds, and Babettes kicking butt and having fun.
If you want to read this for CannonBookClub next week- which I highly recommend that you do- it is currently available on Scribd as a delightful audiobook!