Published: 5th March 2019
Genre: Middle Grade
With a dad who disappeared years ago and a mother who’s a bit too busy to parent, Emmy is shipped off to Wellsworth, a prestigious boarding school in England, where she’s sure she won’t fit in.
But then she finds a box of mysterious medallions in the attic of her home—medallions that belonged to her father. Her father who may have gone to Wellsworth.
When she arrives at school, she finds the strange symbols from the medallions etched into walls and books, which leads Emmy and her new friends, Jack and Lola, to Wellsworth’s secret society: The Order of Black Hollow Lane. Emmy can’t help but think that the society had something to do with her dad’s disappearance, and that there may be more than just dark secrets in the halls of Wellsworth…
This contains so many of the things we cherish in a middle grade story. From a wonderfully spirited main character to an intelligently crafted and unpredictable mystery, it delivers a royally entertaining narrative with a classic boarding school setting and a fast pace which never relents, ensuring that it took next to no time at all to devour it from beginning to end.
In spite of the somewhat breathless pace to proceedings, the book is packed with an impressive amount of depth and provides a lot for younger readers to take away from an education perspective, especially in regards to history. There is also useful representation in the shape of a girls’ football team, which goes against the usual stereotype and is potentially inspiring.
Emmy Willick is an 11-year-old girl whose father disappeared in mysterious circumstances when she was very young, and she now spends most of her time moving around the United States with her mother, who is a high-profile parental expert. After her mother receives the opportunity to present a reality television show, Emmy is rather ironically sent to study at Wellsworth, a boarding school in England.
Introverted and shy to begin yet with a very strong work ethic, Emmy is immediately made to feel unwelcome by her new roommate, but otherwise soon feels entirely at home at Wellsworth. She finds two close friends and discovers that her father was a former pupil at the school, while clues about his supposed whereabouts start to appear in unexpected places.
All the while, she is attending meetings of the Wellsworth Latin Society, whose members are all male and are made up of many of the school’s shadier characters. An even smaller group make up the Order of Black Hollow Lane, a exclusive society which Emmy discovers is just as intent as she is to find out the secrets left behind by her father.
There is intrigue to be found from a very early stage with the question of what happened to Emmy’s father and the introduction of Wellsworth, and that ultimately leads to a plot that contains an impressive amount of intricacy. The motives of a number of the characters serve to keep you guessing as until the revelation took place, it was genuinely difficult to know what was going to happen in terms of the central mystery.
Some of the ideas and themes could have been developed a bit more, but the author seemed very intent on maintaining the fast pace instead of exploring things in greater detail, which is perhaps more understandable here given the target audience. It was a really good story, but the only other problem I had was that it was just a bit too similar to Harry Potter, minus the magic. Aside from the obvious boarding school setting, there were several moments where obvious comparisons could be made.
The entire book is written in the third person past tense, but the focus is entirely on Emmy and her journey. She is a fantastic protagonist, so determined and single-minded in a way that makes her extremely easy to root for. At the same time there is a lovely degree of innocence about her, as she is afraid of breaking rules, takes responsibility for her actions, and often goes the extra mile for others.
One of my favourite things was the friendship she has with Lola and Jack, which was heartwarming to read about as they were so caring towards Emmy and beside her every step of the way. Lola was particularly entertaining for her no-nonsense attitude, while Jack was interesting in the sense that he is slightly estranged from the rest of his family.
By contrast, Emmy’s mother was frustrating, as for a supposed parenting expert she seemed to care only about her career and showed little regard for her daughter’s needs. As for the staff at Wellsworth, Madam Boyd and the sometimes mysterious Master Barlowe were both likeable, although Larraby came across as sneaky and suspicious.
Wellsworth was a fun setting and although it was not captured in immense detail, talk of hidden passageways and the emergence of Black Hollow Lane itself helped bring it to life. I liked the role it had in the plot and also the significance of the local church, which was fascinating and full of surprises. In addition, there were some nice touches in terms of the cultural references.
The writing is engaging and contains a lot of things to enjoy for older readers, as well as the young ones that it is primarily aimed towards. The narrative is mainly plot-driven, but Emmy is right at the heart of everything and at the end she really comes into her own, showing both quick thinking and a strong perspective on events.
Overall, this is an exciting and well plotted story that makes for a quick and absorbing read. For all the similarities to Harry Potter, it offers a lot of positive vibes and characters that I really grew to invest in after only a short space of time. There were some unanswered questions and the end, so hopefully the sequel can provide all of the answers.
Julia Nobel has had a passion for reading and writing children’s literature since she was a child, when her favourite book was The Babysitters’ Club. Since then, she has gone on to become a writing coach and publish The Mystery Of Black Hollow Lane, which was her first novel. The sequel, The Secret Of White Stone Gate, was published in 2020. She lives in Canada with her husband and daughter.
A very quick, fun read. For a middle-grade, it packs a lot in and is perfect for its target audience.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐