Heather Kassner’s debut novel, THE BONE GARDEN, is a creepy, eerie, hopeful read that includes themes of identity, perseverance, friendship, and courage wrapped in the horror of fairy tales before Disney cleaned them up. Kassner’s dedication is to her “gram, who read me Grimm,” so it’s not wonder. With a true villain and a sympathetic protagonist, readers will weave their way through the story hoping for the best even when the events force them to expect the worst.
We meet Irréelle as she travels through tunnels underneath a graveyard, looking for bones. Her respectful treatment of the skeletons and the descriptions of her humility and self-doubt ensure that readers will at once like her and want to protect her. Her creator (Irréelle is made of “dust and bone and imagination”) and tormentor, Miss Vesper, is the opposite. Cruel both physically and emotionally, she embodies both the attitude of the witch in Hansel & Gretel and The Queen in Snow White. There is also a dash of Dr. Finklestein in The Nightmare Before Christmas. It is the growth Irréelle experiences during the novel as she learns to resist and stand up to Miss Vesper that drives the emotional storyline.
Other characters include more of Miss Vesper’s bone and dust creations. Guy, self-named because Miss Vesper simply called him Boy, was her first helper — but he disobeyed her and was punished. Lass was created after Irréelle, and she has plenty of the courage and strength Irréelle longs to possess. There is also Hand, a disembodied creation readers who have seen The Addams Family will immediately appreciate. The bonds of friendship and trust that eventually connect them are lovingly developed throughout the novel.
The storyline includes elements of horror, mystery, adventure, and complicated interactions, but it takes a good third of the book for the pace to match the expectation. Even so, descriptions like Miss Vesper’s “brightening” after drinking her bone dust tea and the troublesome bats who explode into dirt are marvelous. Young imaginations will truly enjoy them even as they are left wanting for more detail about Miss Vesper’s magic abilities.
THE BONE GARDEN will entice middle grade readers who love magic and mystery and horror. Recommended for ages 10-14. Available August 6th, 2019.