In the Shadow of Blackbirds

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
In the Shadow of Blackbirds Book Poster Image
Spine-tingling ghost story haunts long after reading.

Parents say

age 16+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 2 reviews

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Everyday life during World War I is realistically detailed, and readers get a feel for the ways people coped with the epidemic Spanish flu, the war's impact on families and the nation, how photography was done, poetry, and more. Kids will come away with a strong, accurate sense of how people lived in the fall of 1918 and how events a world away can have an enormous impact at home.

Positive Messages

We see that everyone, from the soldiers in the trenches to the loved ones at home, are victims of war. Mary's father tells her early on to strive to make the world a better place, and she ultimately resolves to do just that.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Mary's a smart, scientifically inclined young woman who wants to learn and experiment. She's also loyal to family and friends, volunteers with the Red Cross, isn't afraid to speak her mind, and has a strong sense of social justice. Her father's a positive, although secondary influence, because he's jailed for his anti-war activities. The aunt she stays with is also a good role model, working in a shipyard to help the war effort and providing Mary with moral support. Other adults and teens are complicated and provide the framework for her to solve the mystery.


For most of the story there are only a few incidents of hitting and punching. But the end has a harrowing description of attempted murder that Mary experiences as though first hand while channeling a restless spirit. In the Shadow of Blackbirds mainly concentrates on creating a spooky atmosphere: A lot of the imagery along the way is gruesome or gory, including one particularly creepy description of a ghost, a lot of dead bodies, graphic war injuries, and of course the blackbirds.


Mary kisses Stephen once, and Julius lies about them so everyone thinks they had sex. She also has some simulated sexual experiences with a physical manifestation of a ghost that are described as though real but not in great detail. She feels his trousers brush against her legs rhythmically and pulls him close until he's "inside her soul."


"Hell" and "damn" less than a dozen times. One description of being in the trenches lists the "s--t" among many of the horrors.


Characters' cars like Model T and Cadillac are mentioned about a dozen times. Although Cadillac is about half of these, it's matter of fact and not covetous. Kodak is mentioned once in the context of how photography works, and there are a couple of old timey, miscellaneous products like Gibson's Cough Lozenges and Nabisco Sugar Wafers.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A central character, Julius, is assumed to be addicted to opium. He suffers no legal consequences for taking drugs, but the physical and emotional effects are shown in a negative light. At one point he refers to taking enough dope, likely an old-fashioned reference to opium, to stay calm while participating in an horrific crime. A few incidental adult characters smoke, some of whom may be older teens. A young soldier who asks Mary for a light gets a lecture from her on the health consequences of smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that ghosts are real In the Shadow of Blackbirds. They manifest themselves to the living and can physically affect their surroundings. First-time author Cat Winters successfully creates a creepy, gruesome atmosphere that's sustained throughout the book. There's some powerful, classic imagery of violence and death that's likely to stay with the reader for a long time afterward and may genuinely frighten younger kids and preteens. But there's much to admire, even for the squeamish: The strong female main character has a knack for science and determines to use it to solve the mystery. Daily life at the end of World War I is richly detailed, and readers' eyes will open to many surprising aspects of life back then.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent of a 11-year-old Written byKirian June 26, 2014

A story for mature readers (review contains spoilers)

There are some aspects of this book that trouble me. This is absolutely not a book I would hand to anyone under the age of 16.

The heroine, Mary, distraught... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written byIzzy Solace December 26, 2017
Kid, 10 years old June 26, 2014

What's the story?

In the fall of 1918, 16-year-old Mary Shelley must leave home when her father is unjustly arrested for anti-war activities. Sent to live with her aunt in San Diego, she briefly reunites with an old flame who almost immediately goes off to war. Navigating a strange, dystopian world in which everyone wears surgical masks for fear of catching the flu, Mary survives a lightning strike and is forever changed. Interested in debunking photographs that supposedly show spirit manifestations, she gets drawn into discovering the truth behind the death of a spirit who appears to her and whose reality she can't deny.

Is it any good?

Author Cat Winters deftly draws readers into a spine-tingling ghost story that weaves love with loss, belief with science, and war with resting in peace. The World War I era is richly evoked with such details as bizarre (to modern readers) folk remedies against the flu, the Spiritualism craze, and patriotic fervor that goes too far.

But the real star is the creepy, deadly atmosphere that pervades right from the opening paragraph and propels the gripping story forward. Between the war and the flu, our heroine (named after that Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame) must fight to honor her loved one's memory in a world "so horrifying, it frightens even the dead." And it's all eerily enhanced by haunting photographs from the era.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about whether they believe in ghosts. What do you think happens to people after they die? Can the spirits of the dead haunt the living?

  • War has profound effects on everyone it touches. Do you know any veterans? Did their experience change them in some way? How did their loved ones cope while they were gone?

  • In the Shadow of Blackbirds uses a lot of photographs from the World War I era. Do they bring you into the story or the mood, or do they get in the way? Would reading the book be different without them?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love history and fantasy

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