Serafina and the Black Cloak, a Middle Grade book by Robert Beatty, has its moments, but a thin plot, a meandering middle segment, and several gaps of logic/plausibility come close to outweighing its positives, and probably will outweigh them for any readers older than middle grade.
Set at the opulent Biltmore Estate in 1899 (and having been there, oh my, is it opulent), the story is centered on a sudden rash of disappearances amongst the children at the Estate. Serafina, is the young daughter of the mechanic at the Estate, and the two of them, for reasons that are a mystery to Serafina, live secretly in the basement of the mansion. While her father is well known to Vanderbilt (her dad is responsible for maintaining the dynamo that provides the home with the then new-fangled electricity), Serafina’s existence is known to none. Their secret, however, is threatened when Serafina witnesses a man in a scary black cloak “disappear” a young girl by swallowing her in his cloak. Barely managing to escape, Serafina soon finds herself entangled in trying to solve the mystery of the frightening stranger, an entanglement that brings her to the notice of Vanderbilt’s young nephew, Braeden, now staying with his aunt and uncle after his entire family was killed in a fire.
To start with the good, Serafina herself is an engaging character, whose combination of innocence, pluck, and straightforwardness will win over most young readers easily. They will also relate well to the coming-of-age nature of the story, which manifests itself on several levels. One is simply her age, putting her on the cusp of childhood and young adulthood. Another layer is how she has been sheltered and protected by her father and now must enter a new world filled with strangers, many of whom are her social betters, creating a sense of alienation and a fear that she will be judged “different,” a situation any young teen can wrap their heads around. Add in the first tentative motions toward friendship, and that with a member of the opposite sex, and learning that one’s parents are not exactly as one thought they were, and you have a few more layers young readers can respond easily to. A nice touch is that Braeden, despite his coming from a backyard as different from Serafina’s as one can imagine, shares many of her same fears; he too feels awkward around others, has no true friends, and does not yet know his place in the world. And while Serafina’s mother is a complete mystery to her (a mystery that is resolved in the book), having disappeared well before Serafina can recall her, the tragedy that left Braeden an orphan puts him in a similar position.
Serafina’s father, meanwhile, is a solid enough character, if a pretty typical “stalwart loving parent” type. Other characters are thin, but as they play only minor roles, that isn’t much of an issue… save for the villain, but as that’s the big mystery, I won’t say anything about it, save that the mode of villainy, and the imagery surrounding it, is nicely creepy, with Beatty showing a deft touch at those gothic elements. He also does a nice, if somewhat on-the-nose job, of presenting the reader with several red herrings as Serafina tries to deduce if the villain is one of the gentlemen or servants in the Estate and if so, which.
As for the negatives. One frequent issue I had was plausibility, stopping several times to make margin notes on how a particular scene or statement was just too hard to buy. For example, much is made of Serafina’s different appearance, both in terms of her body (her eyes, her bone structure, etc.) and her apparel (a dirty old shirt of her dad’s tied at the waist), and yet she manages to run along with the other children without any hue or cry. In the same vein, issues of logic or internal contradictions cropped up now and then, as when a major fight occurs without waking up a nearby character until just the right moment. It’s possible that some of these moments might glide by a middle grade reader, but besides the fact that it doesn’t really matter, there are enough of them that even younger readers will have one or more times when they question what is happening. Compounding this problem is that one of the largest plausibility concerns comes with the resolution.
Beyond these issues, while the book’s pace is generally smooth and quick, it grinds to a halt in a long segment with Serafina out in the forest. The whole scene is too long, is beset by those above issues of plausibility, and throws off the entire pace.
The strong main character might go a good way toward offsetting some of the book’s problems with plot and pace, but it’s a close call, and with so much excellent MG and YA out there, it’s hard to recommend Serafina and the Black Cloak despite its likable character. It would be interesting to see a second effort from Beatty though.