The Sweet, Spooky Slow Burn of Saint Juniper’s Folly

Debut author Alex Crespo delivers a thoughtful, emotive paranormal YA novel. Three teens with complicated relationships to the Vermont town of Saint Juniper must navigate strange happenings, hauntings, and each other.

Jaime’s returning to Saint Juniper after a childhood shuttled through foster homes. He’s out to himself and the few who get close to him, but not the rest of the world—being brown in a town like Saint Juniper is hard enough. Taylor can relate to that, with a stern Boricua father and a white mother who came from a legacy of magic, one that Taylor has to navigate on her own since her mother’s unexpected death. Taylor’s from Wolf’s Head, the less respected town over. At first glance, Theo and his white, privileged background make for a perfect emblem of the worst parts of Saint Juniper. But he’s not like his father, and he can’t wait to get out.

This summer serves as a coming of age for all three of them. Each teen discovers their own specific relationship to magic or queerness or both, learning more about themselves as they learn more about each other. And they have to learn about each other, because when Theo discovers Jaime trapped inside a haunted house in the depths of the legendary Folly, Taylor might just be the only person who can set him free. The three teenagers bond over their shared goal, and their different, overlapping experiences of non-belonging. It’s a sweet, tender thing, the way the jagged puzzle pieces of the trio click together.

Saint Juniper’s Folly is comped as Cemetery Boys meets The Haunting of Bly Manor, which is true in that it hits that intersection of queer m/m magic and the many aching ways a place, or a person, can be haunted. On the whole though, this reads younger and lighter than either, so expect that going in. The voice is closer to a queer, brown, introspective John Green. I was pleasantly surprised by this—we need more YA in this space, both in terms of age range, and quieter storytelling that explores marginalized teen non-belonging through the supernatural. Because this is a quieter story, with a fairly contained plot. There are a few scarier moments and undoubtedly real trauma, but for the most part, the house and trappings are a metaphor, almost a meditation. There’s ghosts, haunting, even violence, but the texture at the fore of this novel is tenderness.

The paranormal generally takes a backseat to feel good queer coming of age and emerging found family. This book falls into the category of stories that expose teen readers to conversations around trauma, loneliness, and healing, putting them through horror so they and the readers can figure out what makes for a safe space to land—usually, by communicating and relying on each other.

I love how solidly friendship is valued in this book. Taylor isn’t an afterthought. Her biracial identity is woven into the plot in such a believable, satisfying way. She has her own complicated grief, her own betrayal to work through. The care that develops between her and the others is just as genuine as the romance between the boys.

The romance itself is a lovely slow burn. The intensity of queer teen desire is so well-evoked—how all-consuming, how transformative it can be. There’s questioning queer rep here, beautifully crafted and in contrast to the experience of a kid who’s known what it’s like to move through the world as a queer person for a long time. The banter is sweet and swoony, the sort of chemistry that can be a lifeline when you’ve never really belonged. Crespo gives us the wistful, elegant ache of what romance can feel like at eighteen.

Saint Juniper’s Folly is a great choice for readers who want atmospheric, character-driven, younger YA. The pacing wavers at times; I could have done with a bit more about Taylor’s friendship with Anna, the young psychic, and about magic in this world in general. But I suspect these won’t be real issues for the book’s target demographic. It’s still a propulsive read, equal weight given to each of the three points of view.

You can’t run from the ways the past shaped you—nothing can. Not a person, not a house, not even the earth. You can’t choose who your parents are, or how they treat you, or when they’ll die.

Saint Juniper’s Folly taps into the fraught teen liminal summer space when that resonance feels loudest. A time when anything can happen, or the world can pass you by. The magic of the woods, the way you could stay there forever, an escape and a cage all at once. The way your hometown can sink its teeth into you, make a monster out of you, or let you disappear. Alex Crespo’s debut makes a great pick for readers seeking soft scares, big feelings, and a sweet, spooky slow burn.

Saint Juniper’s Folly is published by Peachtree Teen.

Maya Gittelman is a queer Fil-Am and Jewish writer and poet. They have a short story forthcoming in the YA anthology Night of the Living Queers (Wednesday Books, 2023). She works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel. Find them on Twitter (@mayagittelman) or Instagram (@bookshelfbymaya).

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