The List of Unspeakable Fears by J. Kasper Kramer

Hello, J. Kasper Kramer! Welcome to Watch. Connect. Read.! Thank you for stopping by to celebrate Michael McCartney’s cover design and Deena So’Oteh’s cover illustration for The List of Unspeakable Fears. It is so intriguing. Please take us on a tour of the cover. Maybe start with the black cat. :)

J. Kasper Kramer: Since talking about cats (and collecting them, snuggling them, etc.) is a favorite activity, I’m happy to start there! The beautiful black cat on the cover is Old Scratch. Essie O’Neill, the girl in the white nightgown, meets Old Scratch when she moves to North Brother Island—a quarantine island in New York City. The two don’t actually get along at first, mostly because Essie is afraid of Old Scratch (and basically everything else in the world).

I’m sure you also noticed the ominous building looming in the background. If you stare at it too long, you might feel shivers spiderwalking up your spine—which is perfect! Now you’re in the right mood for reading The List of Unspeakable Fears! That building is part of Riverside Hospital, which (in the late 1800s and early 1900s) housed the incurable sick of New York City—people with diseases like tuberculosis and typhoid fever and smallpox. In 1910, when my novel takes place, Essie’s new stepfather, Dr. Blackcreek, is the hospital’s director.

My absolute favorite detail in the cover, though, is the trail of footprints along the shoreline. I don’t want to give away any big spoilers, but those footprints are straight out of a particularly unsettling scene from the book—and they just might have a supernatural origin.

Oh! And one more thing. Beside the fact that this cover is essentially my scary-dream-come-true—I literally gasped when I first saw it—I think it expertly captures some of the major thematic elements of the novel. For instance, both water and fire (and the tragedies they can cause) are important to The List of Unspeakable Fears, which make the cover’s color scheme really meaningful.

Thank you for taking us a tour. If you were booktalking The List of Unspeakable Fears to 5th graders in Chattanooga, Tennessee, what would you share with them?

J. Kasper Kramer: First, I think I’d talk about the pandemic and how it’s affected them. Even though my book is set more than 100 years ago, Essie has to deal with a lot of the same hardships. She’s upset about being trapped on a quarantine island, especially because she’s separated from her best friend, Beatrice, who’s an exceptional young detective. Essie isn’t brave like Beatrice, and she desperately needs her friend’s sleuthing abilities when strange things start happening on North Brother.

Essie also deals with an anxiety disorder, just like me, so I think I’d want to talk about that, too. I bet a lot of those 5th graders have experienced some anxiety this past year, so they might be able to relate to how Essie feels throughout the book. They might also find some strength in hearing about how she learns to cope with her fears—especially her fear that she (or her mother) will get sick.

Please finish the following sentence starters: 

Essie O’Neill is an Angsthäschen! At least that’s what Fräulein Gretchen says. (She’s Dr. Blackcreek’s maid in the creepy mansion where Essie has to live.) Both Fräulein Gretchen and Dr. Blackcreek are from Germany, and Angsthäschen means “fear rabbit” in German. It’s kind of like “scaredy cat”—a cute way to refer to someone who’s always jumping at shadows.

Did you know that I have a black cat, too? His name is Kuma (which means “bear” in Japanese) and he looks a lot like Old Scratch! Kuma was part of a litter of orphaned neonatal kittens that I fostered for the animal shelter last year. (That’s my favorite hobby and a major factor in why I have so many pets.) Sometimes I pick Kuma up and point to the cover for The List of Unspeakable Fears and go, “Look! It’s you!”

Story is a universal part of the human experience. I like to think that’s why we have so many versions of the same fairy tales all over the world. Those stories are part of who we are—they’re part of what make us us. Telling stories (and reading them!) helps us connect with each other and make sense of the world. Stories can also be a powerful tool for resistance and revolution, like in my first novel, The Story That Cannot Be Told.

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me about Typhoid Mary! She’s an important character in The List of Unspeakable Fears. Like Essie, Mary was an Irish immigrant who lived in New York City in the early 1900s. You might have learned about her in History class because she was a famous asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever. Though she didn’t look or feel sick, she spread her illness to others and people died. Because of this, she was quarantined against her will at Riverside Hospital. When Essie moves to North Brother Island, she’s really afraid that she’ll meet Typhoid Mary. I won’t give anything away, but Mary—and a lot of things on the island—aren’t quite what Essie expects.

Thank you, J. Kasper Kramer! 

J. Kasper Kramer is the author of the acclaimed novel The Story That Cannot Be Told as well as The List of Unspeakable Fears. She’s an author and English professor in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She has a master’s degree in creative writing and once upon a time lived in Japan, where she taught at an international school. When she’s not curled up with a book, Kramer loves researching lost fairy tales, playing video games, and fostering kittens.

Look for The List of Unspeakable Fears on September 14, 2021. 

The War That Saved My Life meets Coraline in this chilling middle grade historical novel from the author of the acclaimed The Story That Cannot Be Told following an anxious young girl learning to face her fears—and her ghosts—against the backdrop of the typhoid epidemic.

Essie O’Neill is afraid of everything. She’s afraid of cats and electric lights. She’s afraid of the silver sick bell, a family heirloom that brings up frightening memories. Most of all, she’s afraid of the red door in her nightmares.

But soon Essie discovers so much more to fear. Her mother has remarried, and they must move from their dilapidated tenement in the Bronx to North Brother Island, a dreary place in the East River. That’s where Essie’s new stepfather runs a quarantine hospital for the incurable sick, including the infamous Typhoid Mary. Essie knows the island is plagued with tragedy. Years ago, she watched in horror as the ship General Slocum caught fire and sank near its shores, plummeting one thousand women and children to their deaths.

Now, something on the island is haunting Essie. And the red door from her dreams has become a reality, just down the hall from her bedroom in her terrifying new house. Convinced her stepfather is up to no good, Essie investigates. Yet to uncover the truth, she will have to face her own painful history—and what lies behind the red door.


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