What the Dead Want

Book review by
Michael Berry, Common Sense Media
What the Dead Want Book Poster Image
Creepy ghost story connects history and horror.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

The plot of What the Dead Want involves slavery, the Underground Railroad, the Ku Klux Klan, and public lynchings. The subjects are handled with sensitivity.

Positive Messages

It's better to acknowledge and deal with disturbing aspects of the past than to pretend they never happened. The emotional bond between a mother and daughter can be unbreakable.

Positive Role Models & Representations

With her artist mother missing and her father the physician mostly absent, Gretchen has learned to be self-reliant. When she discovers that the mansion she's inherited is haunted, she bravely chooses to stay. Resourceful and resilient, she faces up to unpleasant truths about her family's history.


A character commits suicide by drinking poison. Ghostly children trip people, bite them, and send hordes of wasps to sting them. Although the scene is not dramatized, the lynching of an African-American man is a central plot point.


About a dozen uses of "hell" and "damn" and a few instances of "s--t."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Gretchen's great-aunt is an alcoholic who smokes cigarettes and drinks gin fizzes. When Gretchen is possessed by her spirit, she feels the urge to do likewise.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that What the Dead Want is a contemporary ghost story by Norah Olson, set in a haunted mansion with a dark history that dates to before the Civil War. The stand-alone novel includes a number of scary scenes, but the level of horror is not likely to disturb most readers. Ghostly apparitions trip, bite, and send hordes of wasps after unwary victims. There's some swearing (about a dozen uses of "hell" and "damn" and a few instances of "s--t"). Teen protagonist Gretchen's great-aunt drinks gin fizzes and smokes cigarettes, as does Gretchen when she's possessed by the old woman's spirit.

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What's the story?

At the start of WHAT THE DEAD WANT, 16-year-old Gretchen learns that she has inherited a crumbling mansion in upstate New York. When she arrives, she meets her Great-Aunt Esther, a once-famous photographer now turned into a reclusive alcoholic. Also on hand are the ghosts of two mean little girls, who seem eager to hurt anyone who crosses their paths. Gretchen can't leave the Axton Mansion, however, as it may contain clues to the whereabouts of her missing mother. Gretchen stays and struggles to understand the residence's tragic past in order to set its captive spirits free.

Is it any good?

It takes skill to construct a convincing tale of a haunted house, and this contemporary novel with deep roots in the past finds something new to do with the standard horror tropes. What the Dead Want provides a reasonable answer to the question of why someone would stay in a mansion they know to be haunted. Author Norah Olson makes understandable Gretchen's quest to find her missing mother's whereabouts, but she also cranks up the suspense as the plot accelerates to its climax. That Gretchen and her friends are able to solve in a few days a mystery that obsessed her Aunt Esther for decades seems a bit unrealistic, but most readers won't be bothered by that incongruity.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how What the Dead Want addresses issues of racism and injustice. How has the legacy of slavery shaped the culture of the United States?

  • How have opportunities for young women changed over the last century and a half? Who were the pioneers who led the way for more opportunities for women in education and employment?

  • Why do people enjoy stories about ghosts and the supernatural? How do horror stories allow readers to explore questions of mortality and destiny?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love horror

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