Ghost Songs by Andrew Demcak took me by surprise. It’s driven by character rather than plot – not the norm for a YA novel, but it should be. Todd, the main character, is a gay teenager, but there’s no love story for him. In fact, the only thing that starts out resembling a romance turns into a horrible, far too realistic plot about sexual battery involving Todd’s best friend, Jennifer. Todd’s mother is an alcoholic and his father never makes an appearance – aspects of Todd’s life that could overcomplicate the story, or could serve as wallpaper, in a lesser writer’s hands. But Todd is a very believable child of an alcoholic: too wise and too worried for his 14 years. When his mother’s plot takes center stage, it’s heartbreaking.
Todd is also a gifted musician, and the descriptions of him playing the flute were right on the money for this former flute student. I thought it was going to be Todd’s orchestra class playing Dido and Aeneas that got through my defenses – I have a soft bit of personal history with that show – but for me it was all over when his orchestra teacher gives Todd an instrument that had once belonged to him. There was tearing up.
And then there’s Leroy, the ghost. This might be my favorite ghost in print. He makes himself known through smells. He bullies your bullies right back. And his motivation turns out to be surprising and satisfying. Best of all, he helps Todd become a hero — when he stands up for Jennifer, when he helps his mother get sober, and when he takes up the fight for himself.