It's dark but hopeful, deep but insightful. This pageturner will enthal both your kiddos AND you parents come storytime tonight...
We love a good read at HoneyKids. In fact, it’s one of our top things to do – we even have our own Book Club to prove it! The best part? When we can introduce a book that explores the wonderful country in which we live (you can check out our fave SingLit picks here!). And our latest find does exactly that. Yep, we reckon the kids are going to go wild for The Hungry Ghost by H.S. Norup! Read on to find more about this must-read, plus an interview with the author herself…
Why we loved The Hungry Ghost by H.S. Norup
Written by former Singapore expat Helle Norup, The Hungry Ghost is an adventurous page-turner, perfect for middle-graders. Set against the stunning backdrop of our beautiful Singers, it’s cleverly layered with elements of fantasy and mythology. Which is perfect, since it takes place during the month of the Hungry Ghost Festival. And it captures the imagination – the kiddos’ and parents’ – from the very first page. But more than that, it’s one of those totally on-point reads that we all need right now, and ensures plenty of ‘aha’ moments.
If you haven’t yet heard of Helle Norup yet, you soon will. Her debut novel, The Missing Barbegazi, scooped a coveted Sunday Times Children’s Book of the Year 2018 listing and her second novel is sure to follow suit. Helle also happens to be my strikingly stunning pal. She originally hails from Denmark, but lived a couple of floors above me in the same condo when we called Singers home (Majulah Singapura!).
A little about the story. The Hungry Ghost follows protagonist Freja, who arrives in Singapore during the month of the Hungry Ghost Festival. It’s an occasion when old spirits are said to roam the streets and families must make offerings to appease their ancestors. Homesick Freja tries to settle into her new life, but fitting in with the ‘happy family’ of her father, step-mother and twin step-brothers isn’t all plain sailing. Then suddenly a girl with long black hair wearing a flowy white dress starts to appear to her… and this is where the mystery begins. Soon, Freja pulls at the thread of an old family secret, one that must be solved before the month is over to allow both girls to be freed from past secrets. Spoiler alert: there may or may not be a hungry ghost that requires feeding!
Want to know more? We got the scoop from Helle herself…
Meet the author: H.S (aka Helle) Norup
Hi Helle! The Hungry Ghost tackles several big themes, like having to work through grief, beautifully. Why did you decide to tackle these topics?
Thank you! I feel like my debut book, The Missing Barbagazi, also dealt with grief although it was a much lighter read. The Hungry Ghost is much darker but also deals with the same themes, yet it’s very much a hopeful story. It’s more about getting to a stage where it’s possible to live with what has happened. It’s about accepting a loss and I think these darker themes are especially relevant right now; there are more children who are experiencing loss in connection with the current pandemic. It’s about allowing yourself to grieve. Acceptance and acknowledgment are also such important parts of the healing process. That’s what I really like about The Hungry Ghost Festival – it remembers those you have lost. I think in Western culture we sometimes just move on. But in Buddhism and Taoism traditions, I like this part of remembering – feeding them by having them in our thoughts.
The main character Freja is incredibly resilient. She’s gone through a lot, including being separated from her mum, who suffers from crippling depression. Is there a personal story behind the character?
Yes, she’s me. I lost my mum when I was a teenager. It’s something I had to live through but I know that for years I tried to avoid thinking about it and not deal with it. Freja does that too but in a completely different way. Although she’s a lot braver than me.
The Hungry Ghost captures a mystical fantastical world, set among the backdrop of current-day Singapore and, of course, the festival. How did you discover these places?
I was walking so much when I was in first arrived in Singapore. I like to experience a place in that way and I saw some of these hungry ghost offerings in my travels. That was one of the things that I found really interesting. The story came from there.
Freja spends a lot of time in the Bukit Brown cemetery in the book. How did you research it?
I heard about Bukit Brown very early on from my husband’s colleague, who’d seen a black spitting cobra there. I was like, ‘What is this place?’ Intrigued, I went there to try and see it for myself (stomping very loudly, though!). I went there quite a lot with the ‘Bukit Brownie’ tours. Those walks are brilliant because they take you off the main paths and tracks and into places you wouldn’t normally go by yourself. One of the first tours I did was to one of the very old graveyards and it was a 3-4 hour hike, in the middle of nowhere. While I didn’t see any snakes, I did see plenty of monkeys, wild dogs and lots of different fruits. I also went up there at night, during the Hungry Ghost Festival, alone (because my husband didn’t want to come) for research. It was a little bit creepy!
Many of the characters in this book are third-culture kids. Was this specific to the story or happen to be a by-product of the characters?
It’s a side topic really, but one I happen to find very interesting. Third-culture kids have a very different attitude to meeting people of different cultures, and embracing new people. This is one of the things I remember from when my boys came to Singapore, how embraced they were. And I really liked that. It’s just a bunch of kids and it doesn’t matter where you come from or where you’ve been. Of course, we’re talking about a privileged group of private international school kids here, but that’s the framework I’m writing from.
I also thought it was fun to explore the language element because often when you have these kids that speak many different languages, sometimes the idioms get completely messed up. And I don’t know if you noticed in the book, but one of the characters Kiera has some of the weirdest idioms! This allowed me to bring in a bit of lightness and humour when otherwise the book is quite dark.
What inspired you to write about themes such as death and grief in The Hungry Ghost? What insights do you hope kids (or parents) reading the book will gain from it?
I think the important thing for kids to take away from any book with dark themes is a hopeful ending. That even when things are really bad, it’s showing you can get through something like this. You can overcome it and there is hope at the end. It’s easy for adults in difficult situations because they can think back to their past and know they’ll come through it. Kids don’t have these past experiences to draw from. My hope is that they can get that from books and read about how a character in a book lived through something difficult
Where can our readers buy The Hungry Ghost?
The Hungry Ghost publishes on 24 September 2020. It is available to preorder or buy from Closetful of Books and everywhere else that sells English children’s books.
Thanks so much, Helle!