Books · Review · YA


A beautifully rendered YA ghost story

I’m not a big YA reader, but you can definitely sell me a book with a cover, and Pam Sym’s Thornhill is a good example. Although I didn’t actually buy it (it arrived in the staff room as part of the appraisal batch we received in advance of the Waterstone’s Childrens’ Book Award) it was the cover that pulled me in. Charmingly dark and Gothic with a moleskin-feel, and black-edged pages, I wanted to read it just so that I could touch it.*

Thornhill by Pam Sym

This is not a complex book, it’s not an original story but it is beautifully and originally delivered. I read it in a matter of hours, helped by the form of the binary narratives.

The story revolves around the lives of two lonely girls, Mary and Ella. Mary is an orphan, and Ella the only child of a mostly-absent, widowed father. Mary’s somewhat more complex narrative is delivered in a series of diary entries, whilst the simpler tale of Ella is depicted in Sym’s cleverly constructed, and beautiful black and white illustrations.

Their stories converge when Ella and her father move into a house over-looking the old orphanage (Thornhill), and Ella starts seeing a strange girl in the over-run, and fenced off grounds of the building.

There is definite homage paid to Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden which not only provides clear inspiration but is actually cited as a favourite book for both girls. Mary, isolated from her peers by selective mutism, finds expression in the making of puppets which she models on characters from her favourite books. As we intersect with her story she has just begun to fashion the characters from Burnett’s book.  The two girls’ interest in each other grows to nascent friendship when Ella finds and repairs one of the puppets that had been left broken and lost in an enclosed garden in the grounds of Thornhill.

I really enjoyed this book. I felt for both girls, and felt the frustration of any parent at the poor choices made by the attendant adults in the tale, but ultimately it is a story about friendship, and how somewhere there is a friend for everyone. Though – again as a parent – I have some reservations about the conclusion as a cure for loneliness. I’m also left with the impression that there may have been another direction this book was originally taking. There are details in the story that suggested to me a different conclusion, or even another character emerging, and when that didn’t happen the attribution for certain events didn’t really ring true. That said I doubt if it is obvious enough for most of the target audience to either notice or worry about.

Overall, definitely worth the read. 

*I’m a bookseller, fondling books is one of the perks. If you think that’s weird you should be in a bookshop when two or more of us are stood around together sniffing copies of a new book and comparing it to other fragrances we have known.

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