Book review by
Carrie R. Wheadon, Common Sense Media
Dreamwood Book Poster Image
Fearless heroine tackles a deliciously creepy forest quest.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Takes place in the early 20th century in the Pacific Northwest, mixing some historical tidbits -- life in logging communities -- with fiction. "First Peoples" take the place of Native Americans and live a bit more harmoniously with the settlers than Native Americans would have.

Positive Messages

A pretty strong eco-message resounds here. Even if in our own world, supernatural forces aren't at work to bring down greedy humans who take too much from the land, there are other big consequences we know too well.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Lucy's a pretty fabulous strong girl character. She's determined, brave, smart, confident, and independent. She's also a bit stubborn and likes to know everything, but her friendship with Pete helps teach her balance -- for example, sometimes it's OK to rely on others and not know everything. Pete is thoughtful and resourceful and wants nothing more than to help his family.  


A few deaths: A man gets carried away by a large animal and killed, a few people drown in a flash flood, and a couple is killed by sentient trees -- one tree pierces a man many times with branches. Scary scenes of hallucinations where trees grow faces and look ready to eat humans; it's believed that the trees are carnivorous and eat humans for real. A gruesome discovery of piles of bones -- a mysterious mass killing from many years before. Lucy and Pete get arrows shot at them and are tied up. Pete gets hit in the face. Lucy gets surrounded by ghosts and talks about being afraid of one ghost in the past who had hung himself. Scary animals -- a wolf, sea serpents, and ominous birds -- follow Lucy and Pete. Men get forcibly thrown out of saloons in town. A mention that Lucy's mother died when she was too young to remember her. Stories of old battles wherein men turned into wolves and ripped out throats. Talk of how ghosts can mess with electrical impulses in live bodies and stop a heart, making someone "die of fright." Lucy's father is missing in the woods for weeks.


Some blushing, a kiss on the cheek, and a hug.


"Bull pucky" said a couple times.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Lumberjacks drink and smoke on the train, and a number of adult characters smoke pipes and cigars. A scene in a bar with men drinking whiskey. Story of famous settler who fell off a ship because he was drunk.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Dreamwood is an excellent debut fantasy book for middle grade readers and teens, but it's maybe not the best choice for a camping trip if ghost stories are not your child's thing. There's a malevolent force in the woods that 12-year-old Lucy and her young teen friend Pete face. At one point the trees -- which may indeed be carnivorous -- make them hallucinate faces on the trunks that are ready to eat them. People around them get killed in the woods -- by large animals, sentient trees, and flash floods -- and they discover piles of bones on the site of a mass killing from years before and a slew of angry ghosts. Lucy's out looking for her father, who was lost in those scary woods weeks before. She's just about the perfect strong girl character: determined, brave, smart, confident, and independent.

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What's the story?

Lucy can't wait to see her father, so she ditches her boring boarding school in San Francisco and takes the train north to where he's busy doing his work as a ghost catcher. When she arrives at the station of a small and somewhat rough logging town, he's not only not there to greet her, no one's seen him for weeks. In his last letter he claimed to be on to something big, and the notes he left behind claim it had to do with a strange disease affecting the trees, a disease some of the townspeople want to blame him for. She figures out he's gone to an abandoned and possibly cursed forest called the Devil's Thumb, a place where her father thinks the disease began. She's determined to find him on her own until a local boy named Pete, whose parents are ruined by the lumber crisis, convinces her she needs help as much as he needs money to save his family. Apparently the cursed forest used to be covered in trees called Dreamwood that have magic and healing properties. If there's only one Dreamwood tree left, it could make them rich and save the forests. But something -- a force -- is in that wood and very protective of everything in it. They're warned not to take anything unless it is freely given. Lucy wonders how her father could survive there so long. What if they're too late to save her father and the last Dreamwood in the forest?

Is it any good?

DREAMWOOD has everything going for it. Lucy, the heroine, is pretty awesome. Not many girls escaping finishing schools know how to hunt ghosts and do it fearlessly. Debut author Heather Mackey has a gift for creating compelling characters, right down to the oddballs in the small logging town. She also creates a fantastic world that grounds us in a little reality -- it feels like the early 20th century of the Pacific Northwest -- but has enough twists on the theme to keep readers guessing -- such as sea serpents as well as First Peoples who live more in harmony with the settlers than Native Americans did but also are to blame for the danger that lies in the woods.

The woods of Devil's Thumb are deliciously creepy. By the time readers get to that part of the adventure, there's no putting the book down. The story moves fast, twists and turns like a gnarled old tree, and stays complex and scary. It's quite a feat for a first-time novelist. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about being scared. How did Lucy handle it when she was scared of ghosts? Think of a time when you faced a big fear. How did you do it?

  • What happened to the settlers of Devil's Thumb? How is this story, even though it's fantasy, a real cautionary tale? 

  • Where is Lucy going next? Which of her qualities do you admire? What do you think she'll be like when she grows up?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love fantasy and ghosts

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