Typically the evolution of a successful piece of modern storytelling goes from books to movies, or occasionally from books to TV, followed by an unpredictable fragmentation into video games and comic books and other, more exotic media. But The Haunting of Sunshine Girl has managed to propagate itself backward, vigorously swimming upstream, from a series of YouTube videos into a new young-adult novel of the same name. I’m sure it’s not the first novel to be published with the YouTube logo on the front cover, but it’s the first one I’ve ever seen. I doubt it will be the last.
The Haunting of Sunshine Girl video series stars Paige McKenzie, who is also the author of the book, written with the help of the established young-adult novelist Alyssa Sheinmel. Thez story concerns a 16-year-old girl named Sunshine Griffith who moves with her mother from Austin to a small, rainy town in Washington State. (This seems to be an established migration pattern for quirky teenage girls: Bella from Twilight went from another hot, dry city, Phoenix, to another small, rainy town in Washington State.)
There, Sunshine and her mom rent a little house together. One night Sunshine hears footsteps, and a creepy child’s voice whispers to her, Nighty-night. As Sunshine says, that’s the thing about haunted houses: “Once you move into one, you’re never really alone again.”
As a heroine, Sunshine is appealing but not irresistible, in part because she’s trying a little too hard to crush your resistance. Her idiosyncrasies are a bit too conventional to feel authentic: she wears vintage clothes, loves Jane Austen, hates pink and owns both a typewriter and an old film camera. (The only conceit I really fell for was her taxidermied owl, and only because his name is Dr. Hoo.) And then there’s her name. I never quite got comfortable with the title, which feels like it might be missing a comma after Sunshine.
But the plot moves along smoothly and rapidly, and the writing is graceful and wonderfully polished–if anything, production values are higher on the page than in the video series. As Sunshine navigates high school life, the supernatural manifestations continue: more noises and voices, Sunshine’s room gets rearranged, Dr. Hoo magically takes flight. The ghost engages her hauntee in board games–Monopoly’s a favorite. Meanwhile, Sunshine’s mom, a neonatal specialist, either can’t see or immediately forgets any of the supernatural stuff, and soon she begins behaving in odd, sinister ways.
On the plus side, Sunshine meets Nolan, a promising boy in her art class. They bond over her vintage camera, and he becomes her partner in ghostbusting. (There’s a sly wink at Twilight when Sunshine accidentally covers Nolan with sparkly glitter.) All the while Sunshine is being watched over by a mysterious presence given to creepy aperçus. “I’ve always been fond of that human expression: The first cut is the deepest,” it muses. “The first cut is usually barely enough to cause any real damage. It’s the hurts that come later that are the real cause for concern.”
It’s hard not to finish The Haunting of Sunshine Girl, but like Sunshine’s mom, I had some trouble remembering it afterward. It’s almost too milled and polished. It lacks the gritty randomness of real life. Things happen a little too simply and predictably in Sunshine’s world: Nolan just happens to have a lifelong interest in the paranormal. Sunshine turns out to have been adopted, and I’ll leave it to you to guess whether her real parents turn out to be people of unusual abilities.
Not that young-adult novels, or any novels, shouldn’t rely on conventions. They’re part of the skeleton of any book, and there’s no point in being fussy about them. As Evelyn Waugh once said, “To be oversensitive about clichés is like being oversensitive about table manners.” But you need some genuine weirdness in there too to give a book life. Say what you like about Edward Cullen’s sparkliness, but you’d never seen it before. If anything scary is haunting Sunshine, it’s the ghosts of young-adult novels past.
This appears in the March 30, 2015 issue of TIME.
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