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Middle Grade Monday – Road trips and audio books and lexile levels: reflections on The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

I usually download multiple audio titles from my public library before I take a road trip, because I am an effective public library user. And also I find they keep me from getting sleepy and make the trip seem about half as long. For this trip (to my Mom’s house, for Thanksgiving) I ended up listening to Jonathan Stroud’s The Screaming Staircase, the first in the Lockwood and Co. series. I have to say, I highly recommend the audio book. It’s read by English actress Miranda Raison, who does an amazing job with a variety of accents and voices that bring the book to remarkable life.

The Screaming Staircase is on this year’s middle school list for the North Carolina Young Adult Book Award. Each year the program develops a list of ten nominees based on student recommendations. In participating schools, students who read at least 4 of the 10 titles are allowed to vote for their favorite to determine a winner near the end of the school year. The Screaming Staircase has been an easy title to book talk even before reading, I think due in part to the cover and in part to my brief description of, “It’s like Ghostbusters, but teenagers with swords.” Strangely enough, the students still seem to know what Ghostbusters is. Perhaps it’s on cable TV?

Going into the story, having only read the book jacket and a couple of reviews, I was immediately intrigued. It’s fast paced, has well developed characters, and an absolutely lovely style of writing, including the use of vocabulary not familiar to most of my students. When I reached my mother’s house, almost half way through the audio book, I quickly checked the Lexile level on my phone. 720. What? How could that possibly be? I hate to bring it up again, but the original Diary of a Wimpy Kid has been given a Lexile measure of 950. The text complexity (just looking at sentence structure and vocabulary use) in The Screaming Staircase would stymie most of the 3rd through 5th grade students I know who have no problem comprehending Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Which is the trouble, I suppose, with relying upon only one metric of evaluation for the difficulty of a book. It just underscores the importance of availing yourself of expert opinions as well as computerized evaluation models.

But back to The Screaming Staircase. If you haven’t had the opportunity to read it, it is (mostly) set in London. Fifty years after the appearance of ‘The Problem’, Lockwood & Co. is a small (3 person) ghost hunting agency housed in the home of its lead detective, the teenaged Anthony Lockwood. You see, only children and teens have the appropriate level of sensitivity to ghostly phenomena to recognize and vanquish the specters. Teams of youth, led by adult supervisors, roam areas where ghosts are likely to be, or where they have been seen, and attempt to contain and/or defeat them. The narrator, Lucy Carlyle, is one such youth, having begun with her local patrol at the tender age of 8. After several years her adult supervisor looses his nerve and leaves his team alone with a particularly vengeful spirit. Everyone on the team save Lucy dies, and the local commission believes her supervisor that he heard nothing. Faced with the inevitability of going back to work with said supervisor, Lucy decides to steal away to London in the early hours and try to join one of the big ghost hunting agencies. London, being such a congested area, is rife with vengeful ghosts and there are multiple large agencies. Unfortunately, none of them are interested in hiring a girl with a dubious qualifications – until she tries with Lockwood & Co. They are more interested in her abilities than her training, and their interview process is somewhat unconventional. After being hired by them, Lucy and Lockwood take on a case that is rather more serious than they had anticipated (to the dismay of their third partner, George, who prefers to do detailed research before facing a ghost.) The end up burning down the house. In order to raise the funds necessary to pay for the damage, they must take on a really big case. Curious that it comes to them when all of their other clients are defecting…

I noticed something interesting about my thought process while listening to this book. Apparently, when no time period is stated, my brain uses context clues to continually reassess the time period in which the book is set. I mention it because I am still uncertain about it. Initial clues: on the book cover the two characters are wearing long overcoats and carrying rapiers, Lucy’s mother is a washer woman who does most of her work by hand, leading to the strength of her forearms. Lucy does take a train to London, but that could be any time period in England after the development of the steam engine. Further on, houses seem to have all the modern appliances, phones, dishwashers. Lockwood & Co. take on a case where a homeowner has boxes of old motorcycle parts in his garage. George does all of his research in the library, mostly looking at old newspapers. I can’t say for sure, but I got the impression that they were actual newspapers, not microfilm. There don’t appear to be cell phones or personal computers, and the Internet is nonexistent. Finally, an explosion in the neighborhood sets off all of the car alarms. I’m perplexed. If you add up references to the war and how long ‘The Problem’ has been going on, it would seem to be set in the 1990s? I don’t remember car alarms being ubiquitous then. Perhaps, then, it is set in present day where the appearance of ‘The Problem’ has disrupted some of our technological developments. Or maybe it’s answered in the last bit of the book – I’m hoping to finish listening to it this afternoon. I suppose I could read it now, but I find myself believing that the audio book narrator does a much better job than my brain will at interpreting the language and characters.

All of that aside, The Screaming Staircase is a delightful story well told, and a must have for libraries serving students in middle school. I’d also recommend it for high school collections that are looking to increase their ‘ghostly’ holdings.


  1. Karen Jensen, TLT Karen Jensen, TLT says

    Robin, I really want to read this book now. The Ghostbusters with swords – how can that not be awesome? Gonna put this on my TBR list. I think The Tween might really like it as well.

  2. I’m just finishing up this book now, and I couldn’t agree with you more about both the sentence complexity and the ambiguous time period. It’s funny how I was unable to identify my misgivings about the book until reading your post. As one who doesn’t usually choose ghost stories, I have to add that the action and adventure in this book have me hooked!

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