There were dolls in a glass-fronted cabinet, dolls perched on a burgundy velvet sofa, and, worst of all, one doll that was about the size of an actual kindergartener propped up in the corner, her arms outstretched, her painted red lips stretched in a wide smile.
I instinctively backed up, and bumped into Ruby.
“Sorry,” I murmured, going to move away, but she was staring at the dolls, shaking her head.
“We’re all gonna die in this house,” she said, and Susanna inched closer to us.
“I’m not dusting anything in here,” she whispered. “Not one single doll.”
—Ruby & Olivia, by Rachel Hawkins
Ruby and Olivia aren’t friends. They used to spend a lot of time together, because Ruby used to be friends with Olivia’s twin, Emma—best friends—but rambunctious Ruby and rule-follower Olivia never really clicked. They stopped even pretending to try before Ruby and Emma fell out.
Now, though, due to questionable choices on both of their parts, the two of them are stuck spending the summer together at Camp Chrysalis, a day camp for kids who need to do some community-oriented “volunteering” to turn their lives around. This year’s Camp Chrysalis project? Sorting through, dusting, and cataloging the items in historic Live Oak House in preparation for the house’s renovation.
Which wouldn’t be so bad… if the house wasn’t creepy as all get out, and in Ruby’s opinion, probably haunted.
Ruby & Olivia is solid: It’s a solid ghost story, a solid friendship story, a solid family story. The girls alternate narrating chapters, and their voices and personalities and concerns are so distinct that the chapter headings aren’t even necessary. As in The Devils You Know—I’m so happy to have picked up multiple haunted house stories this year!—the alternating narration allows us to see the girls from the inside and the outside, to get to know their true selves as well as the faces that they present to the world.
While the core of the story is about Ruby and Olivia’s journey from acquaintances to friends, each girl is also contending with her own stuff—Ruby with her grief about her grandmother’s recent death, and Olivia with her sister’s recent need to claim her own identity outside of twindom—as well as being thrown into a weird situation with a bunch of other kids that they don’t know. All of the various threads and interactions—including the complicated group dynamics of Camp Chrysalis, which include an adult counselor, two teen helpers, and all of our pre-teen ne’er-do-wells—read as organic, emotionally honest, and true to the characters and personalities.
And I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear—given that it’s a Rachel Hawkins book, I mean—that it’s FUNNY:
Mrs. Freely’s neck was turning the same color as her shirt, but her smile stayed in place, even if it seemed more like she was baring her teeth at us than smiling. “Lee is going to set up the fans, Leigh will check the rooms real quick—”
“I should probably check the rooms,” Lee offered,” and Leigh can set up the fans.”
“That’s sexist,” I offered, both because it kind of was and also to see if I could actually make Mrs. Freely’s head explode.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Books that are tonally light-hearted, books that are such enjoyably easy-going reads that they seem to turn the pages for themselves, books that star pretty average kids who have pretty average concerns—books like Ruby & Olivia—often get less critical praise than stories that are Tragic or Self-Consciously Literary, stories that star Dying Geniuses or Quirky Chosen Ones.
Which is too bad. Because telling a straightforward story without relying on a lot of Literary Sleight of Hand is hard the same way that learning to bake the perfect baguette is hard—the seemingly simple is often the most difficult to pull off. In Ruby & Olivia, Rachel Hawkins does just that.
And now I want a baguette.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom and The Backlist, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.