In the small Australian town of Swanston lives a girl called Grace Foley. Her mother was knocked over and killed by a car a couple of years ago, and the family — Grace, her Dad and her brother Cody — moved from their farm into town, where they are still grieving.
Grace does pranks for her friends. Currently, she is grounded for one of them, but being grounded doesn’t stop her from responding to a text message persuading her to do something called a “pipe challenge.”
Swanston — or Swamptown, as the kids call it — has a gorge nearby, crossed by a pipe. Teenagers have been going there forever and students from the state secondary school are competing with those from the private school next door, Sacred Heart. The challenge involves getting safely across the pipe in record time. Grace holds the current record.
But this time, something strange happens on her way back. She doesn’t remember what it was, but for a short time she has been seeing something different from her friends — something very different.
Soon, Grace realizes that she has become possessed. She finds herself bruised for no obvious reason, the gentle, placid family dog is snarling at her and she is drawing pictures in art class of a girl who disappeared 20 years ago. The girl was believed to have been murdered by a boy who apparently stalked her and looked in through her bedroom window, but there was not enough evidence to convict him. However, he had jumped into the gorge a year later and died. There is a ghost possessing Grace, one who won’t go away until she has found out what happened and the ghost has had justice.
But Ballad for a Mad Girl by Vikki Wakefield isn’t just a ghost story. It’s about Grace and her friends, and how she learns to move on, and acknowledge she hasn’t treated them well in recent months. It’s about her family and coming to terms with what happened to their mother. They feel responsible because they didn’t worry when she was late coming home.
Oh, and there is a twist near the end, so please read and finish, even if you are annoyed with Grace! She is annoying, but there are reasons — and she admits that she has been doing the wrong thing by her friends. (Which is no excuse for what one of her friendship group does to her)
In some ways, it is interestingly like the novel Yellow, which has been on this year’s Children’s Book Council of Australia shortlist. Both books are set in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else and anything you say is likely to be all over town in a short time. Both have a ghost in them and both have something dreadful that happened over 20 years ago, and a heroine who is investigating it. But this one is scarier and the heroine is under much more pressure to solve it, because the ghost won’t go away until she does, whereas in Yellow, she just has to keep away from the phone booth from which she hears the ghost boy’s voice, and she does for a while. And unlike Yellow, which is set in the 1990s, this one is set well and truly in the present day, where kids all have their own phones instead of relying on adults, where anything that happens is all over Facebook and you can be hurt when you’re unfriended on Facebook by a lifelong friend. Grace only has to Google information about what happened during that tragedy 20 years ago, instead of having to read old newspapers in the town library, as the heroine of Yellow had to do.
And both have a twist at the end.
To be honest, I prefer this one to Yellow, though that one was good. Ballad for a Mad Girl has more developed and believable characters, in my opinion.
I believe firmly that this one will be on next year’s CBCA shortlist — let’s wait and see! ◊
Sue Bursztynski lives in Australia, where she works as a teacher-librarian. She has written several books for children and young adults, including Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly and, most recently, the YA novel Wolfborn. Her blog, The Great Raven, can be found at http://suebursztynski.blogspot.com.