Review: The Ghosts who Danced and Other Spooky Stories by Saviour Pirotta and Paul Hess

The Ghosts Who Danced: and Other Spooky Stories from Around the World, retold by Saviour Pirotta, illustrated by Paul Hess (Janetta Otter-Barry Books, Frances Lincoln, 2015)


The Ghosts Who Danced: and Other Spooky Stories from Around the World
retold by Saviour Pirotta, illustrated by Paul Hess
(Janetta Otter-Barry Books, Frances Lincoln, 2015)


As my family will attest, or indeed complete strangers who have had the misfortune to sit next to me at the cinema, my endurance threshold for anything remotely scary is pretty low, so I approached this new anthology with some trepidation. However, I found myself completely hooked and I would say that all ten stories deliver just the right frisson of dread and anticipation to make young readers feel deliciously scared without going away and having nightmares afterwards!

The stories encompass a wide gamut of ghosts, from phantoms rising from their grave to party once a year in the story that gives the book its title, ‘The Ghosts Who Danced’ from Ireland, to a kind, old gentleman with a dust allergy in ‘Atchoo’ from Korea, my favourite story in the anthology. A highly vocal spirit terrifies two small boys who unwittingly pick bananas from the hollow tree where he lives in ‘Them Bananas!’ from East Africa, in contrast with the silent, misunderstood ghost in ‘The Haunted Farmhouse’ from Devon in south-west England. In ‘I’ll be back!’ from Lithuania, a family is terrified by a ghost determined to get back something he owns – until Papa comes back from the big city and works out what the problem is; and in ‘The Guest’ from Brazil Miguel has an unexpected, though invited, guest at his birthday party. Bengali folk tale ‘The Ghost and his Uncle’ is about a clever barber who makes salutary use of a mirror – I would recommend this story as a pleasing contrast to Perrault’s fairy tale of the Three Wishes (retold so effectively by Jessica Souhami in her book Sausages, which I heard her read recently). Add to these, three traveller tales that relate narrow escapes: the true story of ‘The Ghost Ship’ from Rhode Island in the US; ‘Dogs to the Rescue’ from Russia; and ‘Welcome to the Red Palace Inn’ from China, and we have a very satisfying anthology of stories to suit different moods and different times of year, not just Hallowe’en.

Saviour Pirotta’s retellings are perfect for reading aloud. He builds up the suspense beautifully and I especially like the way the stories include the odd word from their original language and subtle shifts in the cadence of the English narrative to suit their provenance. His end notes about the stories are fascinating too, placing each story in its cultural context within the ghost-story genre both locally and globally. Paul Hess’s illustrations are atmospheric and suitably ghoulish, with enough humour to keep them from being out and out frightening.

Even so, it’s a braver child than me who would read these stories at bedtime… just in case!

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