The residents of Helton Village in
the north of England all agree: orphaned Oliver Smith is an extraordinarily lucky
boy. Oliver has just learned that he is the heir and rightful owner of Helton
Hall - "a large, grand and rather gloomy house" that had "belonged for hundreds of years to a family by the name of Snodde-Brittle
Unfortunately for Oliver, however,
the evil displaced heirs, Fulton and Frieda Snodde-Brittle, have other plans that include Oliver's early demise. The Snodde-Brittles spot a business run by two ladies who, caring deeply for homeless, displaced ghosts,
started an adoption agency for ghosts called "Dial-a-Ghost." The evil siblings
adopt a fearsome ghostly twosome (the Shriekers) that is eager for an opportunity to harm a child.
The suspense deepens when an innocent
mistake sends the horrific ghostly pair adopted by the Snodde-Brittles to a convent, while the kind ghost family intended
for the convent is sent to Helton Hall.
A resident of the north of England
herself, Ibbotson sets the scene within the first pages of the book: The Wilkinsons
(the kind ghost family mentioned previously) become ghosts when their house is bombed during World War II air strikes; Mr.
Wilkinson, a member of the "Home Guard (4)" tries - and fails - to evacuate the family safely; Mrs. Wilkinson's sister, Trixie,
"had been chosen to be the Spirit of Britain (4)" in a show to be performed for "the gallant soldiers (4);" and the lost ghost
child - a girl whom the Wilkinsons subsequently adopt - is found with toiletries including "a tin of tooth powder with a picture
of Queen Victoria on the lid (8)."
Character names (Sir Pelham and Lady
Sabrina de Bone - the Shriekers); a Snodde-Brittle genealogy tree; and minor place descriptions (the "knicker shop" )
all add to the setting. Ibbotson's description of Helton Hall cleverly adds to
both setting and suspense: "large, grand, and rather gloomy house in the north
of England . . . built of gray stone and . . . a gray slate roof, and gray stone statues of gods and goddesses with chipped
and snooty-looking faces . . . and a lake in which a farmer had once drowned himself (29)."
Standing at the entrance steps to Helton Hall, Oliver's first sight of his inherited bounty is even more foreboding:
"on either side of [the stairs] were statues [of] . . . a lion being stepped on by a man who was beating him on the head with
a club . . . [and] on the right was an even bulgier man . . . strangling a snake (48)."
Ibbotson crafts this tale carefully,
building suspense interspersed with gory descriptions sure to make the reader's blood curdle.
Ghastly ghost Sir Pelham's forehead, for example, is described as having "been bashed in by a horse's hoof, so that
it was just a mass of splintered bones;" his left ear "hung by a thread;" and "rents in his trousers" allowed views of Sir
Pelham's "scarred and vicious knees (25)."
Just as carefully does Ibbotson describe
the warmth and affection that young Oliver and the Wilkinsons begin to feel for each other.
Ibbotson describes Oliver's sentiments on being hugged by Mrs. Wilkinson in this manner: "Being hugged by a ghost who
cares about you is a most wonderful feeling, like resting inside a slightly bouncy cloud (83)." Having adopted a ghost daughter, the Wilkinsons find it easy to "adopt" Oliver and make Oliver's battle
against the evil Snodde-Brittles their battle, too.
Kevin Hawkes' illustrations bring
life to the characters and delineate the plot well. A Horn Book review
(Hepperman 2001) puts it this way: "With occasional elegantly comic line drawings
by Kevin Hawkes, this clever fantasy would be a good choice for readers who enjoy the wit, gothic atmosphere, and over-the-top
pessimism of Lemony Snicket's series but still want everything to turn out all right in the end." Hawkes clearly portrays the sense of fear and intimidation that Oliver initially feels at Helton Hall. Changing from threatening evil to gentle and serene, Hawkes' drawings hint at
the outcome - which won't be revealed here!
Hepperman, Christine M. 2001. Review of Dial-a-ghost. Horn Book Magazine 77 (5).
Ibbotson, Eva. 2003. Dial-a-ghost. Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. New York: Puffin. (Published in Great Britain in 1996.) ISBN
This review was written for a graduate course in Library and Information Studies at Texas
Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.