Make your own free website on



by Eva Ibbotson
Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes

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 (29)." 

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" [65]) 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 0-14-250018-6 



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.




To go to the next review, click on The Belonging Place.
To return to the main menu, click on Reviews.

To read the next review, click on Pirate Girl.
To jump to the next set of reviews, click on Latin America.
Go to home for the main menu.