The List of Unspeakable Fears

Written by J. Kasper Kramer
Review by Clarissa Harwood

Eleven-year-old Essie O’Neill is afraid of so many things that she keeps an alphabetized list. On the “A” line alone are “Alligators, Ants, Anything with a Sharp Point.” Essie spent her earliest years as a much-loved child in a poverty-stricken Bronx tenement, but ever since her adored da died, Essie has felt alone with her fears. And now she has something new to worry about: her mam has married Dr. Blackcreek, director of the notorious quarantine hospital on North Brother Island. Essie must leave her best friend Bea and everything she knows to start a new life there.

As soon as she arrives, she knows that something isn’t right with the island or the luxurious but creepy mansion she’s moved into. Essie feels that she’s being watched, and she sees people and things that others don’t. Worst of all, her new stepfather frightens her. She knows he has a secret, and she must brave some terrifying situations to learn what it is in order to save herself and her mam. But sometimes Essie’s fears run away with her, and she makes mistakes that put her in as much danger as the things she’s afraid of.

Kramer’s writing is elegant in its simplicity, revealing the longings and terrors of childhood in a way that will hold readers of all ages spellbound. She also subtly and believably immerses the reader in the world of 1910 New York, linking Essie’s fears to new technologies of the time such as electricity and telephones. Anxious children will feel a deep kinship with Essie, and this book should be required reading for their parents. Highly recommended.