The other day, my college student daughter and I were driving along when we saw a young girl, maybe 13 or 14, walking down the sidewalk following her father, who was at least 30 feet ahead of her. The reason she was so far behind was that she had her nose in a book, reading as she walked. It reminded me a lot of the young lady that sat beside me. And when I was a kid, I read just about everything still do, when you get right down to it. The biggest difference between now and then, apart from the obvious change in reading level, was that I would stick with one genre for months at a time biographies, science fiction, mysteries. I’d read until I was satiated and then would move on to something else. I wondered if anyone else read like that, and if kids do so today.
I remember devouring the Hardy Boys and tons of imitators; maybe those plots were pretty simple, but those were simpler times. Which brings us to the subject at hand Joyce McDonald’s new book for young readers, Shades of Simon Gray, a spooky and suspenseful tale of computer hacking, a 200-year-old murder, teen angst and an initiating event so random and odd it will give you the creeps even if the rest of the book doesn’t. Throw in some ghosts, a tragic accident and a deadly plague, and you’ve got quite a bit to digest, even for a teenage reader. Call it the The Babysitter’s Club meets Stephen King.
Simon Gray is a high school senior with his share of personal problems; his mother has died, and the members of his family have retreated, his sister into drugs and his father into bitter grief. So too, has Simon, though he doesn’t realize it, by compromising his principles in order to be liked by a girl who is obviously using him. When he ends up in a coma after wrecking his car, the lives and schemes of those around him start to unravel, and he finds himself trapped in a strange netherworld that looks like his hometown, but where time and space mean different things to different people. Trapped with him is the ghost of a wrongly hanged man, who may have the key to Simon’s escape.
Populating the book is a realistic group of teenagers; some are bright, some are ambitious, some just want to get by any way they can. The adults as well are a normal assortment of everyday folks. Perhaps that’s what makes Shades of Simon Gray so believable most of the characters aren’t caricatures, and their motivations aren’t that hard to understand.
The book is a lot like its title; it can be read in a number of ways and levels. On the surface, it’s a suspense novel, but it also could be called a thriller or a mystery or a ghost story. Also, are the shades referring to real ghosts or imagined ones? Or maybe the shades are the many parts of Simon Gray himself. You’ll have to decide.
Joyce McDonald has done a super job; she’s up-to-date without being trendy, and her prose is simple and straightforward, but not dumbed-down. Teens will find this book relevant and true; McDonald covers a lot of bases and has some opportunities to be preachy, yet refuses to do so, letting readers make their own judgments. And maybe it’s just me, but there’s a subtle undercurrent that made me think of the tragedy of Columbine not that anything like that happens here but her characters are real enough that you could see how, given a few plot twists, history could repeat itself.
That’s not what McDonald is after, however; she wants to show us that all deeds engender regrets, and that we all are the sum of the choices we make. An admirable trait in a book for young people.
James Neal Webb is the father of two teenagers pray for him.