Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ghostscape by Joe Layburn

Ghostscape is a small, time travel story about a young Muslim Somali girl named Aisha. She is a very unhappy, angry girl, who is now living in London with her mother after her father was murdered in Somalia’s civil war.

The story begins with Aisha crying in the girl’s bathroom because she has once again been bullied by a girl named Chevon. Hearing a cough, Aisha opens the door and there is a pale young boy standing there. She doesn’t recognize the boy and he isn’t dressed like anyone else at school, in fact, the bathroom isn’t even the same. And the boy is asking her if she is afraid of the bombs. Next thing Aisha knows, she back in the right girl’s room - alone.

Later, in the playground, she tells two friends about the experience. Chevon overhears her and threatens to tell Aisha’s mother that she has a boyfriend, knowing that goes against Aisha’s religion. The two girls get into fight and Aisha again finds herself in the presence of the mysterious boy, yelling at her that the sirens are going off and they are in danger.

This time, Aisha finds out the boy is named Richard and it is 1940 London, in the midst of the Blitz. They run through the streets to the shelter of a railway arch to wait out the bombing raid. Richard tells her that he lives with his grandfather, who refuses to go to a shelter during raids. When the air raid warden comes by, they discover he cannot see Aisha.

During a break in the bombing, Aisha goes with Richard to his grandfather’s house. They find his grandfather surveying the remains of their home, which has been destroyed by a bomb along with many other homes on the street. Everyone is taken to nearby Trentham School for shelter. This is also the name of Aisha’s school, but they don’t look a bit alike. They find a spot on the floor and settle in. Just before they fall asleep, Richard asks Aisha to tell him about Chevon.

When she wakes up, Aisha is in her own bed and her mother tells her she had fainted during her fight with Chevon. Aisha can’t wait to get to school that day to talk to the teacher who teaches World War II history. But instead of Miss Brown, Aisha finds Chevon in the classroom, ready to exact some justice. To Aisha’s delight, Richard also shows up and starts to invisibly torment Chevon. Richard manages to actually scare an apology out of Chevon, along with a promise to leave Aisha alone.

Later, Miss Brown tells Aisha to speak with the lollipop lady (crossing guard) about the local history of the area during the war, but she does find out that the Trentham School was bombed during a raid and had to be rebuilt.

By the end of the school day, Aisha has been suspended from school until the following Monday, resulting in yet another terrible fight with her mother. But suspension gives her time to go to the library and read about the bombing of the Trentham School. Aisha determines that she must find Richard and warn him.

But time travel can be capricious. Will she be able to find Richard again or lose the first person she has cared about since her father’s murder in Somalia? Will she ever come to terms with the loss of her father and begin to get along with her mother? The ending yields a bit of a surprise for Aisha.

Ghostscape is a good book. It is essentially about differences, similarities and acceptance. Despite the fact that both kids come from paranoid times when suspicion and mistrust of “the other” run high, and despite their individual differences, Richard and Aisha accept each other’s presence unquestioningly. Their differences become that which binds them together and gives the story its interesting twist. Richard and Aisha are reflections of each other, they have both experienced loss because of war; both are scared, and scarred; if Aisha can save Richard, she can save herself.

Though I do highly recommend this book, I did have one problem with Ghostscape. Layburn is certainly not without talent as a writer, but I think because the issues he addresses in this book are serious and it should have been a longer, more finely drawn story. For example, one of the things he does address is the issue of bullying, particularly how distressing it can be and how easily it can be missed by those who should be more aware of what goes on among students. Instead I felt that he have found a true life incident and that was his focus, not the characters and the issues.

The true story upon which Ghostscape is based has been the subject of disagreement between the British government and the people of the East End of London since it happened. After a night of heavy bombing, hundreds of people made homeless were moved into the shelter of the South Hallsville School, in Canning Town in the East End. On September 10, 1940, the school was hit by a bomb. The government claimed that it killed 73 people, but the area residents believed it was more like 400, mostly women and children.

An interesting article about the author, Joe Layburn, and the genesis of the book can be found at Ghost of a Chance

This book is recommended for readers ages 9-12.
This book was purchased for my personal library.


  1. Very nice review. It's so sad that children sometimes can't have a happy childhood.

  2. This sounds interesting. I like time travel books, but I don't like that cover!

  3. I agree, Beverly, it is sad that children can't always have a happy childhood, or even a relatively happy one.
    Storied Cities, This was an interesting book,and I don't particularly like the cover and I don't really get it either.