School of the Dead

Book review by
Michael Berry, Common Sense Media
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Suspenseful, action-packed ghost story has mild scares.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

School of the Dead makes good use of its San Francisco setting, providing vivid details about the city.

Positive Messages

The distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion. Good friends can protect each other from danger.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Tony Gilbert isn't always completely honest with his parents about where he's going and why, but he's basically a good kid: brave, resourceful, and not willing to let someone else suffer in his place.

Violence & Scariness

Tony clubs an assailant in self-defense when ghosts chase him and attempt to steal his soul.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that School of the Dead is a middle-grade ghost story by Newbery Medal winner Avi (The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, City of Orphans, and many other novels) set in San Francisco. There's plenty of action and suspense, but most readers will not find the plot too intense or scary. The level of violence is very low, limited to the climax, when the main character is chased by soul-stealing ghosts. Sexual content is limited to very mild flirting.

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What's the story?

Tony Gilbert's great-uncle Charlie seems kind of weird, but when he moves in with Tony and his parents, the boy comes to love the old man. Tony is heartbroken when Charlie dies, but his uncle's legacy allows Tony to move to San Francisco and attend the Penda School, the prestigious private institution where Charlie enrolled in his youth. Tony has trouble adjusting to the Penda School, especially when he sees what seems to be his uncle's ghost on the premises. To find some answers, Tony turns to the Weird History Club, led by a strange girl named Jessica. Is Penda haunted, and if so, what do the ghosts want with Tony and his friends?

Is it any good?

With a vivid San Francisco setting and a strong main character intent on solving a twisted mystery, this school-based ghost story will cast a spell on middle-grade readers. Author Avi knows how to devise a haunting plot with high suspense and unforeseeable surprises. As Tony tries to make sense of the supernatural aspects of the Penda School, some of his theorizing seems a bit repetitive, putting the brakes on the story from time to time. More engrossing are the well-choreographed action scenes, when the living must face off against the dead.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why it can be so difficult to move to a new school. What strategies can make such a transition easier? What can parents, teachers, and students do to make a newcomer feel more welcome?

  • What makes a good ghost story? What other ghost stories have you liked? 

  • Tony is devastated when his Uncle Charlie dies. How do survivors cope with the loss of a loved one? Is there a right way to grieve? Do you have any favorite books about grief?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love ghost and school stories

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