Ghost Stories and More by Maryland Writer Mary Downing Hahn

by Erin Mawn

One of the first books that I remember loving- not just liking, but loving- is Wait Till Helen Comes. This book was so wonderfully frightening that it fueled my young imagination to create and write my own ghost stories. They were, of course, very crudely written because I was only eight years old at the time. I was just beginning to learn how libraries work, and so I went to the same shelf to see if I could find any more scary stories by the author. There was another book, which I read an enjoyed but it was not a ghost story, so I went to the librarian and promptly asked for her help. Being an elementary school librarian, she probably expected me to describe the story or the cover art on the book, but when she asked if I remembered the author’s name so she could look it up in the card catalog, I promptly answered “Mary Downing Hahn.”

(She was impressed that I remembered the author’s entire name.)

Ever since then, that name has stood out to me as I browse books. In bookstores, library book sales, tag sales, and even online, I could never resist scooping up a book by Hahn because I knew it was guaranteed to be a good read. Even now, twenty years later, I continue to read and collect these books.

My more recent reads include Deep and Dark and Dangerous (almost as chilling as Helen), The Sara Summer (Hahn’s first book) and Anna All Year Round. An added bonus to reading (and re-reading) these books now is that I live very near where most of them are set. Being a Maryland native, Hahn sets many of her stories in and around Baltimore.

I recalled hearing that Hahn lives in Maryland, but it did not occur to me until recently to write to her. There are so many of my favorite authors that I will never be able to write to or meet, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott, that I strongly believe those who are able to be contacted should be. What a wonderful feeling it is when they respond!

After I had written to Ms, Hahn expressing my love of her stories, I inquired if she would be willing to speak to me about her writing, and she was. But before I get into our conversation, here’s the basic breakdown:

She grew up in College Park, MD.  She was a children’s librarian in Prince George’s Public Library System before she decided to write and release her first book, The Sara Summer (1979). Her 30th book, titled The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall, will be published sometime this year. . She describes these years which have been books for children and young adults as “serendipitous”.

Although she enjoys writing stories with ghosts and other supernatural elements, her favorite book she has written is Stepping on the Cracks (1991). This book is a work of historical fiction, set during World War II. Margaret and her best friend Elizabeth slowly uncover a secret related to the class bully, Gordy. “It includes many elements of my own childhood, both good memories and bad, happy times and sad times, friends and enemies and loved ones.”

This book received the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Aside from using some of her own experiences in her writing, as well as the memoirs of her own mother, on whom the books Anna All Year Round and Anna on the Farm are based, she prefers to create her own characters rather than basing them all on people she knows. “I once used episodes from one of my daughter's middle school years, foolishly thinking she'd be amused. She definitely was not.”

One of my favorite aspects of her stories is how relatable the protagonists are; many of them are pre-teen and teenaged girls, and the conflicts they face make me remember the daily struggles of an adolescent girl. Not in the “I have braces and the boy I like doesn’t even know who I am” way, but in a more real and intimate way. Growing apart from best friends, not being able to sort out why you feel the way you do at any given moment, and the love/hate relationship with parents are all there. I must confess that I have a soft spot for the ‘bratty’ characters; the ones that torture their younger siblings, talk back to adults and generally enjoy causing (and getting into) trouble are great fun and they provide comic relief within the sentiment. For this kind of enjoyment, try The Sara Summer, The Jellyfish Season, and Tallahassee Higgins.

But back to the ghost stories now- they are the most fun to read. The best thing about ghosts is that they do not face the same limitations, in any facet, as people do. Anything can happen! What I always liked best about these stories is that the ghosts are real; they are not explained away by flapping sheets, or shadows or any other type of Scooby-Doo misadventure. They exist, and they interact with the other characters. Also, there is often a theme of redemption in the ghost stories. Something was done, whether intentionally or not, that causes these ghosts to be present. Some of them are friendly, and some of them are not, but they all are waiting for some wrong to be ‘righted’ before they can rest in peace. My personal favorites are Wait Till Helen Comes and The Doll in the Garden, but I also recommend The Old Willis Place, Deep and Dark and Dangerous, and Time for Andrew. Andrew is a ghost story with a boy protagonist, for those of you who know boys that enjoy ghost stories but might squirm at reading a ‘girl’s book’.

With the proliferation of books that are made into films, one cannot help but wonder if any of Hahn’s numerous stories are under consideration, so I asked her about this possibility: “I'd love to see one (or more) of my books made into movies.  .  .I'm keeping my fingers crossed!”. As am I!

If you’d like to know more about Mary Downing Hahn and her stories, please visit her official web page: http://www.hmhbooks.com/features/mdh/index.html.

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