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Stranger Things meets The X-Files in this eerie, heart-pounding middle grade adventure about a young boy and girl who must protect their small town from otherworldly forces threatening to destroy it.

Rae’s father vanished without a trace—and Rae knows what happened to him. But no one believes her when she says that her father didn’t run off, that he was actually taken. Now, a year of therapy later, Rae’s mother decides they need a fresh start, and so they move to a new town in the hope that life can return to normal.

The problem is, there is nothing normal about the town of Whispering Pines.

No one knows this better than Caden. He’s lived in Whispering Pines his entire life, and he’s seen more than his fair share of weird—starting with his own family, as the town is the perfect home base for his mother’s ghost hunting business.

When several kids go missing and then show up like zombies with their eyes removed, many locals brush it off. Just another day in Whispering Pines. But Caden has a dark secret, one that may explain why someone is stealing eyes. And Rae, who knows how it feels to not be believed, may be just the person Caden needs to help him put things right.

Chapter 1: Rae 1. RAE { THREE MONTHS LATER }
Rae Carter had never run away from anything in her twelve years, no matter what. She believed in always finding out the truth and facing it head-on, even when it cost her all her friends. But now, as her mom’s minivan rumbled into their new town, she realized that running away was exactly what she was doing. And it felt… okay, actually.

Although she wasn’t so sure about the place they were running to.

“?‘Welcome to Whispering Pines,’?” Rae read off the large sign posted at the edge of town. “?‘Mind the goats.’?” She frowned. “Really? Goats?”

“Goats must be important around here,” her older sister, Ava, said in that irritatingly superior tone she’d been using lately, like it was all so obvious.

“Don’t try to pretend that’s not weird,” Rae said. “Most other town signs just tell you the population.”

Ava shrugged. “I happen to like it. You like it, right, Mom?”

“It’s definitely different,” their mom said, slowing down to match the speed limit as they cruised down the main street. Twenty-seven and a half miles per hour. Rae had never seen a decimal point in a speed limit sign before, but this time she kept that to herself. Ava would probably claim she liked that, too.

Rae scowled at the back of her sister’s head. Ava was five years older than her, which hadn’t mattered all that much before. But this past year, Rae had felt each and every one of those years piling up between them.

Don’t be such a child, Rae…

Rae shook off the memory of the worst day of her life, the day she’d really needed her sister’s help and instead got a condescending lecture. If Rae was finally running away from something, it might as well be everything. She could leave her old self behind, and be someone new here. Someone who wasn’t overly focused on strange things. The kind of girl who made friends easily—and kept them—and was able to let the little things go.

But then she thought of her dad and knew she couldn’t actually abandon everything.

They left the small downtown area behind and turned onto a tree-lined street. All of the streets here were tree-lined. They’d had plenty of trees back home in Sunnyside, California, too, but not like this. It was as if the houses and businesses of this town were battling the forest for space.

A few more turns, even more trees, and up ahead Rae spotted a moving van parked on the street in front of a rectangular white house. Her mom pulled up behind the van and cut the engine, the car filling with quiet as the three of them just sat there, staring out at their new home.

It was definitely larger than their old place but looked older, the paint a bit weathered, the bushes lining the walk slightly overgrown. Otherwise, it seemed normal enough. No goats anywhere. Rae was a little disappointed.

She glanced at her mom in the rearview mirror. Her mom wore one of those looks that meant her mind was a million miles away, her eyes wide and unfocused. It was a look she’d worn way too often this past year, ever since Rae’s dad had vanished.

Been taken, Rae corrected herself. That was one truth she couldn’t forget, not for a second. “Mom?” she asked.

No response.

“Should we go in?” Ava asked, a little louder.

Their mom gave herself a little shake and smiled. “I suppose we’d better,” she said. Of course she responded to Ava. She always did.

Rae crossed her arms, remaining in the back seat as her mom and sister got out and headed toward the house. Neither of them looked back, though, and after a minute Rae got tired of being sulky and climbed out of the car too. She took a deep breath.

The air smelled different here, like pine needles and dirt. The trees nearby had just started to change color, clumps of red and orange bursting out from behind all that green. Rae had heard that nothing beat autumn in Connecticut. So far it seemed like it was off to a slow start.

“You coming in?” Ava called, poking her head out the front door.

“Yes, yes,” Rae grumbled. But she hesitated at the bottom of the driveway. Once she went inside, that would be it. The end of the old Rae, the start of the new. She wasn’t sure if she was ready.

She looked at the moving van looming in front of her, packed full of everything from her family’s old life, and realized she didn’t really have a choice.

Movement behind the van caught her eye. Someone was walking through the yard of the house across the street. Rae glanced at the open front door behind her, then took a step away from it. She wasn’t stalling. She was investigating.

She stepped past the van so she could see the house across the street better. It sat up on a hill, its own driveway long and unpaved, and at the bottom a large square sign read, GOT A GHOST PROBLEM? NAME YOUR PRICE! in bold orange letters. Below that, written in black, it said PARANORMAL PRICE: SPECIALIZING IN EXORCISMS, TAROT READINGS, AND HOUSE CLEANSINGS, followed by a phone number.

Rae scratched her head. Maybe it was a joke?

She looked past the sign, through a thin layer of trees and up the driveway, where a boy with messy dark hair moved slowly backward through the yard. He was tall and skinny and wearing all black—probably a requirement if his family actually specialized in ghost hunting—and he was tossing handfuls of something into the grass as he walked.

“Hello?” Rae called loudly. If they were going to be neighbors, she might as well be friendly.

The boy looked up at her.

She waved.

He turned away, tossing more of whatever it was into the grass behind him and ignoring her completely.

Rae slowly lowered her hand to her side, her heart sinking. Maybe things wouldn’t be any different here for her after all.

“Don’t mind him,” a voice said behind her.

Rae whirled, coming face-to-face with a girl about her age wearing jeans and a gray T-shirt with the words “Seeking Samantha” printed on it.

“Caden Price doesn’t really like people.” ?The girl tossed her long dark hair back over her shoulder. “I mean, we live on the same street, and I think he’s spoken to me once.”

“What’s he doing?” Rae asked.

“Drawing a line with salt.”

“Salt? Why?”

“I have no idea, and frankly, I’m scared to ask. But he does it a lot. Especially lately.”

“Great,” Rae muttered. She was living across from a ghost-hunting weirdo with a condiment problem.

“I’m Brandi, by the way,” the girl said. “You must be Rae, right?”

Rae’s eyes widened. How could this girl possibly know that?

“I promise I’m not some creepy stalker,” Brandi said quickly. “We just don’t get many new people here, so as soon as the moving van showed up, I had to investigate.”

“Spoken like a true stalker,” Rae said, the words slipping out. She immediately regretted them. They belonged to the old Rae, the one who had ended up friendless and alone. “I mean…”

Brandi laughed. “No, that’s fair. My mom tells me I’m too nosy for my own good. Claims it’ll get me in trouble someday.” She shrugged. “Anyhow, you’ll be in my school, good ole Dana S. Middle School. Seventh grade, right?”

Rae nodded.

“I’m a grade above you, but I like helping new students get settled in, and since you’re, like, only the second one we’ve had in a year, I can totally show you around if you want.”

“Show me around? You mean, here? Or at school?”

“Both.” Brandi grinned. She had chapped lips and a small gap between her front teeth, but somehow they made her smile look better.

Rae wanted to grin back, but embarrassingly, she could feel tears building in the back of her eyes. It had been a long time since anyone had been so nice to her. Not since her ex–best friend had cut all ties at the beginning of sixth grade. “I’d like that,” she said, turning a little away and blinking rapidly.

“Cool beans.” Brandi studied the moving van. “You probably want to get started unpacking, huh?”

“Not really,” Rae admitted. She wasn’t looking forward to going through all those boxes.

“Oh good! Want to get ice cream with me instead? I’m supposed to be cleaning, but if I’m showing the new girl around, my mom can’t really get mad at me.”

“Oh, so you’re using me?”

“Just a little.” Brandi flashed another gap-toothed smile. “Want to come anyhow?”

This time Rae managed to smile back. “I’d love to. Let me just check with my mom.”

“I’ll wait.”

Rae turned and hurried up the driveway, her earlier hesitation gone.

It was time to reinvent herself here in this strange little town. Out with the old Rae, and in with the new.
Photograph © Portia Shao

Heidi Lang managed to stumble upon the two best jobs in the world: writing for kids and walking dogs. If she’s not out on the trails surrounded by wagging tails and puppy kisses, she’s probably hunched over her laptop working on her next book. She lives in northern California with her husband and two adventure-loving dogs, and she is the coauthor of the Mystic Cooking Chronicles and Whispering Pines. Find her on Twitter @HidLang, or visit the website she shares with her writing partner at HeidiandKatiWrite.com.

Photograph © Portia Shao

Kati Bartkowski was originally drawn to illustration before she got swept up in the world of words. Nowadays she’s a fan of creating fantastical creatures and feisty heroines in both mediums. If she’s not reading, writing, or drawing, she’s probably chasing after her high energy little girl. She lives in northern California and is the coauthor of the Mystic Cooking Chronicles and Whispering Pines. Find her on Twitter @KTBartkowski, or visit the website she shares with her writing partner at HeidiandKatiWrite.com.

An unearthly, eyeball-stealing cosmic horror stalks kids.

Whispering Pines, Connecticut, is a strange town where the speed limit has a decimal point and school rules include bans on both chalk and the wearing of garlic. New-kid Rae wants a fresh start—a year ago, the middle schooler had confided in her best friend that Rae’s father was abducted by the government to cover up alien existence, only to be betrayed when her secrets were spread, leading to ridicule and ostracization. Her neighbor Caden is the school weirdo: His mother’s a ghost hunter, and his gift of paranormal empathy landed him in trouble in his younger years. Moreover, his brother has disappeared, and he’s responsible. While both kids navigate desire for friendship and connection as well as their places in complicated family dynamics, what brings them together is a mystery about something hunting kids and stealing their eyes—and its possible connection to a terrible adjacent dimension packed with horrors. The scary parts (aside from eyeballs, bodies, abominations, and the like) capitalize on sensations of wrongness, primal fears, being watched, and twisted games of hide-and-seek. The third-person narration alternates between the two characters, and in addition to their plots (both the realistically nuanced family-and-friend storylines and the genre-specific pulpy thread), the town’s overflowing with red herrings to complicate the mystery and seed future Whispering Pines stories. One side character has a Japanese surname; otherwise characters default to white.

Perfect for reading under a blanket with a flashlight. (Horror. 8-13)

– Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2020

After her dad’s mysterious disappearance, Rae moves to Whispering Pines, Connecticut, with her sister and mom, who have seemingly forgotten about him. Rae, unable to forget, is certain something unusual led to his disappearance. She quickly learns that Whispering Pines is filled with strange happenings—disappearing children, random sinkholes, weird school rules. Some of the missing kids are eventually found in an even more frightful way: with their eyes missing. Rae befriends neighbor Caden, whose loneliness stems from his family’s supernatural business, and the pair investigate the occurrences in town and in the Watchful Woods nearby. As Caden and Rae uncover strange truths, they realize the bizarre events may be linked to a local energy company and the disappearance of Caden’s brother. Readers will feel chills from the prologue onward as they’re pulled into the darkness of Whispering Pines. Chapters alternate between Rae’s and Caden’s points of view, slowly unraveling each character’s mysterious past. Caden and Rae are both believable protagonists, admirable for the actions they take and the worries they carry, and readers will enjoy meeting the vast array of interesting side characters as well—and have to decide which ones to trust and which ones to suspect. A thrilling novel perfect for fans of Stranger Things and stories filled with mystery and suspense.

– Booklist, STARRED Review, August 1, 2020

LANG, Heidi & Kati Bartkowski. Whispering Pines. 320p. S. &S./Margaret K. McElderry Bks. Sept. 2020. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781534460478.

Gr 4-8–Twelve-year-old Rae Carter arrives in Whispering Pines, CT, determined to appear normal. No asking people if they believe in aliens and no mention of her dad’s disappearance from a secret government lab. The fact that her neighbor Caden Price’s family are ghost hunters doesn’t help her, nor do the strange disappearances of children. Even worse, when children do reappear, their eyes are missing. After Rae’s new friend vanishes, Rae, Caden, and their friend Vivienne decide to investigate. Caden has his own experience with the supernatural; he accidentally trapped his magic-hungry brother Aiden in another dimension. Add in a suspicious green energy plant and the feeling that supernatural creatures dog their every step, and the result is a spooky story with mystery elements. The chapters alternate between Rae and Caden in third-person limited perspective. Both children are such underdog loners that readers will feel immediately sympathetic, especially as Rae and Caden’s families don’t seem to support them emotionally. The chilling preface where the eye-snatching demon hunts its prey, as well as other unusual settings, enhance the book’s dark tone. One might wish this series opener—ending on a cliffhanger—didn’t have quite so many different story threads, but perhaps they will be untangled in future installments. VERDICT Like “Goosebumps,” but for an older audience, this book seems custom made for kids who like a good scare.  A high appeal horror suitable for middle grade and tween readers. Recommended for most libraries.–Caitlin Augusta, Stratford Lib. Assoc., CT

– School Library Journal, August 2020

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