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Discussion Module

Breathe: A Ghost Story
by
Cliff McNish

Publishing Information: Carolrhoda Bookst: Minneapolis, Minn., 2006
ISBN: 0822564432 / 0739336835 (Audio)
Pages
: 261 p.
Ages: 10 & Up

Summary:
Twelve-year-old asthmatic Jack has recently lost his father. To help the two of them recover, Jack's mother decides to move them to an old house with lots of history for the sixth-sensitive Jack to explore. Almost immediately, he senses the presence of others who have inhabited the house since their deaths. Jack meets the four young ghosts who are constantly on the lookout for the horrific Ghost Mother, a totally disturbing character who seems beyond redemption. The Ghost Mother is a completely creepy bad guy! Her relentless pursuit of the young ghosts is totally spine-chilling. She is not the ultimate threat, however, as the children desperately try to avoid her sending them to the dreaded Nightmare Passage. Jack also encounters Isabella who was the Ghost Mother's daughter. She died of TB at a young age leaving her mother alone and inconsolable. She and Jack work together to save the young ghosts and settle things with the Ghost Mother.

Book Talk:
"A dilapidated farmhouse, creaking on its shaky two-hundred-year-old foundations ... was absolutely perfect for Jack" thought his mother Sarah. Between three major asthma attacks and the sudden death of his father, 12-year-old Jack had been through a rough year. As she watched her son dreamily wander around the living room happily stroking the tiles, the couch, the woodwork, Sarah didn't pretend to understand her son's odd ability to sense the memories. As Jack explored his bedroom, stronger feelings of other lives surfaced within him. He "saw" the happiness of a young mother and her little daughter, the bloody TB suffered by the little girl, and the despair of the mother left alone at such a young age. Then one night as Jack slipped into sleep, he felt the slightest of pressures on his bed followed by a faint caress across his shoulders, a caress like a mother's, but it was not his mother. "Jack screamed. A small, thin woman, face as pale as a white candle, was draped across his bed. Her arm was extended tenderly toward him." Jack lunged for the door ... struggling to find air ... the Ghost Mother....

Subject Headings & Major Themes:

Asthma
Death
England
Extrasensory Perception (ESP)
Ghosts
Grief
Single-Parent Families

Awards & Reviews:
Grade 4-8 - Asthmatic Jack and his recently widowed mother move into an old farmhouse, but they aren't alone. The spirits of four children also inhabit it, but only Jack can see and hear them. Those spirits aren't alone, either. A Ghost Mother rules the roost and has enslaved the ghost children. And now she is after Jack. However, he has a second sight that might help him save the souls of those dead, abused children. Can he act fast enough to save himself and his mother? McNish keeps the pacing and action moving right along. While the story is plot driven, the author gives his characters substance, and his language, usage, and style are fairly sophisticated. This is a well-crafted story that is weightier than the standard chiller. Filled with suspense, it will keep readers riveted to the pages. --Elaine Baran Black, Gwinnett County Public Library, Lawrenceville, GA
School Library Journal, November 2006, p.142

Times Educational Supplement
'Jack's susceptibility to frightening asthma attacks matches the consumptive sufferings of a long dead girl - readers aged 10 and above will be gripped and spooked'

Discussion Questions and Ideas:

  1. Jack and his mother Sarah have recently suffered the devastating shock of losing his father Stephen to a heart attack. Sarah's decision to move them to an old farmhouse   where they can make a "fresh start" is her way of coping with their loss. Do you agree or disagree with her choice? What would you do differently, if at all?
  2. Jack seems to have extra sensory perception (ESP); he "feels" the presence of beings other than those on earth. Do you believe that some people have this gift? Have you ever experienced such a feeling or others such as déjà vu in which a place or situation seems familiar? 
  3. Life after death is very complicated in this "ghost story." If you accept that there are ghosts or spirits, do you think that there are different kinds of ghosts? Do you think most of them feel trapped, doomed to haunt forever?    
  4. The Ghost Children - Ann, Oliver, Charlie, & Gwyneth - seem to be victims of their times. Ann died of scarlatina, caused by the strep germ, in the 1940s. Oliver died in a car accident in the 1990s. What health differences do you see between the two eras?
  5. The Ghost Mother holds terrible secrets about the deaths of her daughter Isabella & herself. What do you think kept the Ghost Mother from joining her loved ones on the Other Side? (HINT: 2 words - guilt and forgiveness.)
  6. The ability to "Breathe" seems to be a common theme. What are some of the problems associated with breathing in this story? 
  7. What do you think of the Nightmare Passage? Did it seem like a form of hell to you?
  8. Most readers would be able to sympathize with the Ghost Children. But, what about the Ghost Mother? Was she too horrible to be forgiven?  

Related Websites:
Cliff McNish's Website - http://www.cliffmcnish.com

Ghosts and Fear in Language Arts: Lesson Plan at:   www.readwritethink.org/lessons/lesson_view.asp?id=237

Make up clues for several groups. The clue for each group led to another clue somewhere in the library. When the students found the second clue, it led them to a mystery book on the shelf. They pulled it and sit down until everyone has finished. Read the titles of all the books found and ask what these books have in common. Show students a poster with criteria for a good mystery book:

  • Characters are well developed.
  • Reader can solve mystery along with main character because all clues are given
  • Plot engages the reader and propels the reader on through the book.
  • The mystery is solved at end of the book.

from http://www.roundrockisd.org/docs/literary_genres.doc

TAPS: The Atlantic Paranormal Society - www.the-atlantic-paranormal-society.com
The Atlantic Paranormal Society is the organization of Rhode Island ghost hunters, as seen on the TV show Ghost Hunters on the SciFi Network.

Paul F. Eno, Rhode Island's own "ghost guru"- www.newenglandghosts.com  and   www.footstepsintheattic.com

Read-a-Likes:
1-800-WHERE-R-YOU series by Meg Cabot (Originally under pen name of Jenny Carroll), 2001-2007
Coraline
by Neil Gaiman, 2002                                                                                                 The Haunting by Joan Lowery Nixon, 2000
Hey Dad, Get a Life by Todd Strasser,1996
House of Dies Drear
by Virginia Hamilton, 1984
How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found by Sara Nickerson, 2002 (A 2004 RITBA Nominee)
The Last Treasure by Janet Anderson, 2003
Lily's Ghosts by Laura Ruby, 2004 (A 2006 RITBA Nominee)
Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, 2002                                                                                       The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, 14th ed., 2003  
Mediator
series by Meg Cabot (Originally under pen name of Jenny Carroll), 2000-2005
The Presence
by Eve Bunting, 2003
Skellig by David Almond, 1999
Stonewords: A Ghost Story by Pam Conrad, 1990
A Stranger Here by Thelma Hatch Wyss, 1993                                                                  There's a Dead Person Following My Sister Around by Vivian Vande Velde, 1999
Vicky Angel by Jacqueline Wilson, 2001 (A 2002 RITBA Nominee)

Other Books by the Author:
The Doomspell, 2002
The Silver Child, 2005
Silver City, 2006

About the Author:
According to my Mum, when I was arriving in this world on the night of 24th August 1962 the electricity in the house failed, and all the lights went out. So I was born part in darkness and part in candlelight. I've no idea what significance that has, but it sounds impressive somehow.

I was born in Sunderland, a city in the northeast of England. I'd like to say I picked up the local Mackam accent, but unfortunately I only stayed long enough to toddle a few steps before my Dad whisked me, Mum and my older brother, Andy, down south.

I don't remember too much about my first 8 years of life. I think I just daydreamed it away. One thing I do remember is that our family was always moving, so I had to get used to a new school and friends all the time. I got to dread that first day in a new class. When I was only six, I distinctly remember being told off in my first week at yet another new school by a teacher. I had no idea what I'd done wrong, but the teacher shouted loudly and made me spend about 30 minutes standing on my chair in front of the whole class as punishment. That was the second most embarrassing moment in my life. The most embarrassing moment in my life occurred about a year earlier when, after repeatedly telling my teacher I had to go to the bathroom and being told to wait and wait and wait, I ... er, couldn't wait a moment longer.

What was I like as a youngster? I don't know - cheerful and a bit vacant probably sums it up quite well. We had a hawthorn wood at the back of my house, and I'd play there with my friends all day long whenever I had the chance. I always came home covered in scratches.

My school reports were spectacularly average. My teachers were always noting that I daydreamed a lot. I didn't read much either, and when I did it was comics - mainly Marvel superhero comics. There was one superhero named The Silver Surfer who went silently round the Universe on a kind of space-surf board. He was lonely, aloof, a genius.

I identified with him.

My first real book memory is being given C.S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew by my English teacher, Mrs Baldwin. Wherever you are now Mrs Baldwin, I thank you, because you opened my eyes. I was so bowled over by it that I read all the other 6 Narnian books right away. I loved them. Actually, I went further than love. I remember lying in bed in the dark, staring at the ceiling and wishing, wishing with all my heart, not just that I could meet C.S. Lewis (he was dead, actually), but that I could be C.S. Lewis. I wanted to BE C.S. Lewis! Don't ask me what was going on in my head....

My Mum and Dad separated when I was eight years old, and my brothers, sister Caron and I moved several times again after this. Eventually we settled down in Luton in Bedfordshire.

As I entered my teens I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had no ambition to write. When I was fourteen I briefly wanted to be a geomorphologist (someone who studies the landforms of the Earth), but only because I really liked my geography teacher, a brilliant Welshman called Gwyn Bennett. The last I heard he was still teaching at the very same school in Luton that I had left 23 years earlier. There's a happy thought!

With no better idea of what to do with my life, I just carried on at school, did my A-levels and went on to study History at York University. I left after 2 years, bored with the course and somewhat unhappy, without my degree and with a need to earn some money.

My first job involved working in a warehouse, and I'm afraid my day-dreaming days returned. One of the jobs involved putting items into boxes and writing the customer addresses on them. Not too difficult, you might think, and you'd be right, but my attention strayed often and I kept putting the boxes in the wrong places or getting the addresses wrong. Luckily, I was moved into the accounts section of the company before they sacked me. I ended up doing some work on the office computer, and a small smile appeared on my face. From there I applied for another computer job elsewhere, and another. I didn't have any better ideas, and at least I could make a little money.

It wasn't until I'd been working in the computing industry for about fifteen years that it occurred to me to write anything, and even then it had nothing to do with me; it was all my daughter's fault. To find out more - and why I chose to write about witches with spiders as friends.
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