Serafina and the Black Cloak - Robert Beatty

"Never go into the forest, for there are many dangers there, and they will ensnare your soul."

Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of Biltmore Estate. There's plenty to explore in Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt's vast and oppulent home, but she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists; she and her pa, the estate's maintenance man, have lived in the basement for as long as Serafina can remember. She has learned to prowl through the darkened corridors at night, to sneak and hide, using the mansion's hidden doors and secret passageways. But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows the clues to follow. A terrifying man in a black cloak stalks Biltmore's corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of Biltmore's owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak's true identity before all of the children vanish one by one. Serafina's hunt leads her into the very forest that she has been taught to fear, where she discovers a forgotten legacy of magic. In order to save the children of Biltmore, Serafina must not only face her darkest enemy, but delve into the strange mystery of her own identity.
Biltmore Estate, Asheville, NC. 1899. Serafina, age 12, is the daughter of a maintenance man employed at the Biltmore Estate. Unknown to the Vanderbilts, Serafina have been secretly living in the basement of the estate for some time. Serafina often struggles with sleeping through the night, so she tends to take walks around the house and grounds while her father sleeps. It is on one of these nightly walks that she sees another young girl being dragged into the basement area by a mysterious man in a long black cloak. Right before her very eyes, Serafina watches this girl just vanish into thin air, mid-cry. Over the following days, more children of Biltmore's guests likewise vanish. Serafina herself knows what's going on, having escaped the clutches of the man herself (though she was never able to get a clear look at his face -- judging from what she did see, she's not even sure if he's entirely human), but she feels no one would accept the truth as she would have to explain it, so she sets out to try to catch the man herself. Teaming up with new friend Braeden, George Vanderbilt's (then owner of Biltmore Estate) nephew, she tries to bait the cloaked man into revealing himself. The plan she comes up with includes going into the very woods that her father has always asked her to avoid... because those woods hold a secret to her lineage she may not be ready to discover. 
the real Biltmore Estate
Given that I live just down the road from Biltmore Estate, how could I not give this one a go?! I'll say that it caught me off guard a bit. For a book put out by Disney, geared towards middle-grade readers, this story got waaaay darker than I was expecting! Adult readers will likely be pretty entertained by the mild creepy factor (by adult standards, that is) but yeah, when you picture younger kids reading this, it's hard not to pause every so often and think "Dang, really?!" I'm sure it will be fine for older middle-graders and teen readers, but I would say to parents if you have a bookworm much younger than 8, you might want to give this a read-through before letting them have at it. I could see this being just a wee bit nightmare-inducing for the really young ones. 
That being said, it's a pretty fun little adventure for fans of mild to moderate spookiness. There's the mysterious cloaked figure (and can I just say I could not get "Man In The Long Black Coat" -- the Joan Osborne version -- out of my head the whole time I was reading this!), scenes in an abandoned graveyard, hair-raising shadows and paranormal connections. The beginning of the story reminded me a bit of the opening scenes of the movie Hocus Pocus, but later it turned more Legend of Sleepy Hollow-ish. I was actually surprised to see absolutely no mention of Biltmore's Halloween Room. It's one of the most famous rooms in the entire estate and would have fit in perfectly with this story! In fact, from a book design perspective, I was thinking it would have been so perfect to incorporate some of the artwork from that room onto the endpages but nope, sadly the reader just gets a solid hunter green inside. Still pretty, but a missed opportunity to be sure. {Reading up on the history of the house, I learned that the artwork in that room only dates back to the 1920s, so historically it would have been inaccurate with the timeline of the book, but I STILL say it would have made for cool endpapers!}
just one small section from the walls of the Halloween Room
@ Biltmore Estate
I was hoping for a bit more of the actual estate life worked into the story. What was there was kinda neat but also a lot of meh. Maybe I'm spoiled, having been to the actual place myself. There's a sense of grandeur -- which induces daydreams of imagining the sounds of carriage wheels, faint tinklings of a piano, southern winds through the breezeways -- that you instantly get walking on those grounds that I just didn't get with this story. But I will say, it was pretty touching to read such a young character SO willing to always put herself before others, even risking death at one point! Serafina has a real sense of what is right and wrong, finding herself frustrated with the discovery that not everyone in the world shares this gift. She can't comprehend why or how people can go through life deliberately carrying out evil but she doesn't fear doing what needs to be done to set things to rights. I just loved that about her. She also just has a great way of interpreting life in general:
She thought it was interesting how just about everyone had a special talent or skill, something they were naturally drawn to and good at, and then they worked years to master it. Nobody knew how to do everything. It wasn't possible. There wasn't enough time in the night. But everyone knew something. And everyone was a little different. Some people did one thing. Others did another. It made her think that maybe God intended for them to all fit together, like a puzzle made whole.
Serafina's friendship with Braeden also tugs at a reader's heartstrings when she discovers that he's struggled for his place in the world just as much as she has, even though he seemingly has all the riches of the world at his feet. Through their talks they discover that before meeting each other, they both desperately craved companionship, having that one friend in the world who just gets you without even trying, that one kindred spirit who doesn't think you're too strange or creepy at all, it's just obvious to them that no one took the time to properly get to know you before. I think that theme of wanting to know where you come from and be with people who love and understand you unconditionally resonated with me more than anything.
One of my favorite lines in the book:
"There's no claws in that paw."
(ie. an empty threat)