Serafina and the Black Cloak

Evidently, I have difficulty spelling the word "cloak."  I just typed it in about six different iterations before I achieved the proper spelling.  I mean, Serafina and the Black Cloaca would probably be an interesting book--most certainly a foul one--but that's not what Robert Beatty wrote.  But I would totally read it.  Imagine: a spunky Roman girl finds hints of a mysterious plot at the Forum and gets around the city by swimming the Cloaca Maxima.  No?  No book deal?

Well, actually, that's kind of the plot of Serafina and the Black Cloak.  (Right.  I'm copy-pasting "cloak" so I don't have to type it anymore).  Serafina and her father live in the boiler room of the great Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.  Her father is an engineer, and a very good one at that, but he strictly informs Serafina that she must never be seen by anyone in the house, nor must she reveal that they sleep in the boiler room.

So, right now you're thinking that we either have a Quasimodo situation on our hands, or that this is a Disneyfied version of a V.C. Andrews story.  Actually, it's neither.  Serafina is preternaturally quiet, and only has eight toes, but is otherwise a relatively normal human girl.  Sort of.

One night while prowling the mansion for rats (she's the C.R.C.: Certified Rat Catcher), Serafina witnesses a creepy man in an even creepier black cloak chase and kind of consume a young girl.  The next morning, the Brahms family discovers that their beautiful piano prodigy of a daughter is missing!  Dun dun DUNNNN!

Almost every night after that, a child goes missing.  Only Serafina knows that it is Black Cloak, but she doesn't say anything about it because ... reasons.  She also strikes up an extremely unlikely friendship with the Vanderbilt's nephew, Braeden, who is, of course, kind and sweet and totally unstuffy.

Oh, for pete's sake.  I'm tired and I'm sick and I don't want to tiptoe around the issue any longer: Serafina and the Black Cloak was profoundly disappointing.  The characters were one-dimensional, I guessed Serafina's secret right away (and I think the more discerning kid readers will, as well--especially if they're cat-obsessed) and the Boss Battle at the end was profoundly boring.  Like, that's it?  That's all you had to do?

In the afterword, the author states that he wrote this book to give his daughters a strong girl to look up to.  I'm curious as to his definition of "strong female character."  Serafina pretty much just does what other men tell her to do, and when the nephew's life is in danger, she says that she would die to save him.  Okay, I'm not saying that it is ignoble or worthless to die for someone--but her situation would easily be remedied with a little forethought or planning.  Instead of just dramatically dying for a boy, why wouldn't you get help?  She values her life less than that of a boy she's been friends with for a very short period of time.

One benefit of reading this is now I am extremely intrigued by Asheville and the Biltmore Estate, and it's definitely going on my to-see-travel list.  However, for a story set in the south (or The South, depending on how you feel about the Southernness of North Carolina), the vernacular didn't ring particularly true to me, nor did it reflect the racial makeup of the area at the time.

Now, you might say, "Librarian Pam!  Kids don't care about that!" and I'll say, "Yes, they do!  Because they see themselves in stories, and if they are POC, they will not see themselves in this story at all!"  When I started the book, I was hoping that Serafina was African-American.  Nope.  White.  Why didn't the author give us a strong, black girl character?  Why not?

This is getting a lot of hype, and I think the book trailer gives away the story's "secret" about Serafina far too obviously, but I'm not sure how many kids watch book trailers anyway.  In sum, this was a very disappointing book when there was a lot of potential for kick-butt girls, American folklore, and fantasy.


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