‘Scarlet and Ivy’: Middle-Grade Series Review and Author Interview

Scarlet and Ivy, Images: Harper Collins Children's Books, Sophie Cleverly
Scarlet and Ivy, Images: HarperCollins Children’s Books, Sophie Cleverly

Over the last few months, I have been working my way through the Scarlet and Ivy series by Sophie Cleverly. This middle-grade book series captured my imagination and is now entertaining my nine-year-old son as well.

What Is Scarlet and Ivy?

Scarlet and Ivy is a middle-grade series of six books, the latest one (and last in the series) was released in January 2019. The books follow the adventures of Scarlet and Ivy Grey, thirteen-year-old twins who attend Rookwood School, an English boarding school in the 1930s. Throughout the books, we get to know the girls and their family, along with their friends, and the teachers at the school as they solve a series of mysteries. Other than book one, The Lost Twin, the books are told in chapters that alternate between the perspectives of the two girls.

The first book begins with the disappearance of Scarlet who, the deputy headmistress Miss Fox claims, has died of an illness while at school. Devastated, Ivy is offered Scarlet’s place at Rookwood, where she quickly learns she is to literally replace her sister, taking on her name in order to prevent the school’s name being tarnished. Soon, Ivy discovers that her sister has left a trail of clues throughout the school by tearing out pages from her diary. By teaming up with her new friend Ariadne and ballet teacher Miss Finch, Ivy hopes to discover what really happened to her sister.

Scarlet and Ivy American Covers, Image: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Scarlet and Ivy American Covers, Image: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky

Why Should I Read Scarlet and Ivy?

I picked up the first Scarlet and Ivy book (well, downloaded it because I listened to the entire series in audiobook format courtesy of Audible) because I needed something quick that fulfilled a reading prompt in my 2018 PopSugar Reading Challenge—to read something by someone sharing my name. After reviewing the first book in our Between the Bookends column, I ended up falling in love with the whole series and listening to all six books in just a couple of months. My son is now listening to the series and I have also bought a complete set of the books to give to one of his friends for her birthday this month.

This is a middle-grade series, so adults aren’t going to find anything particularly shocking or overly new here. Many of the classic tropes from the boarding school series you probably read as a kid are here: sneaking around the halls at night, midnight feasts, nasty teachers and even nastier pupils abound. However, there’s something about these books that made them stand out to me. Scarlet and Ivy themselves are interesting characters, one introverted and one extraverted but without falling into stereotypes. Throughout the book, quiet Ivy finds herself speaking out for herself, while brash Scarlet realizes that sometimes its better to keep her mouth shut.

The setting of an English all-girls boarding school also allows for a wide range of female voices to be heard. In fact, across the whole series, the number of male characters with speaking parts can almost be counted on one hand compared with the dozens of female characters—I’m pretty sure the series would actually fail a reverse Bechdel Test until the final installment.

All these female characters mean that women can possess a huge number of characteristics instead of being limited as the single female member of a team. In Scarlet and Ivy, we have women who are kind, funny, evil, manipulative, bookish, sporty, cruel, shy, and much, much more. We see women with careers, and we see women working together to take down the systems that oppress them. It is an excellent showcase of what can be done when female characters get to take center stage, and it is done without feeling the need to strip away traditionally feminine elements. Scarlet and Ivy both adore ballet, one of their friends is obsessed with horses and ponies, and they all love to sit around enjoying candy-filled midnight feasts and giggling. Scarlet and Ivy show that is possible to be “girly” and still fight (and win) against the people determined to hold you back.

Scarlet and Ivy Aus/NZ/Canada Covers, Images: Harper Collins Children’s Books
Scarlet and Ivy Aus/NZ/Canada Covers, Images: HarperCollins Children’s Books

What Are the Books in the Scarlet and Ivy Series?

Book One: The Lost Twin

Ivy Grey is forced to take her sister Scarlet’s place at Rookwood School after her sister’s death, only she quickly discovers that all might not be as the school claims.

Book Two: The Whispers in the Walls

It seems that a thief is on the loose at Rookwood, or perhaps a ghost? Items keep going missing and Scarlet is under suspicion, but is there more afoot than meets the eye? The girls also discover a secret that links back to their very own family.

Book Three: The Dance in the Dark

Just as things are seeming to improve at Rookwood, the girls’ beloved ballet teacher Miss Finch disappears. The mysterious Madame Zelda takes her place, and poison pen letters begin to circulate around the school, reaching both pupils and staff. The girls decide to investigate and discover a story of revenge.

Book Four: The Lights Under the Lake

Scarlet, Ivy, and their friends get to go on a week-long residential trip to a countryside hotel by the edge of a reservoir, but Rookwood’s mysteries are determined to follow them. The legends surrounding the town drowned beneath the reservoir seem to be coming true, and is there more to one of their friends than she is letting on?

Book Five: The Curse in the Candlelight

There’s a new girl at Rookwood. Ebony claims to be a witch and soon seems to have most of the students (and the teachers) under her spell. Scarlet and Ivy don’t believe in witchcraft but something weird is definitely going on, and it’s down to them to figure out what before their best friend gets dragged down with it all.

Book Six: The Last Secret

Rookwood School is in danger and the twins will need to solve yet another mystery in order to save it and keep their friends together. As if that’s not enough, there’s drama at home too giving the twins double the problems to solve in this final chapter to their story.

Sophie Cleverly, Image: Sophie Cleverly
Sophie Cleverly, Image: Sophie Cleverly

Interview With the Author

I was able to get in touch with the author of Scarlet and Ivy, Sophie Cleverly, to ask her some questions about the series and her plans for the future.

GeekMom: Where did the idea for Scarlet & Ivy come from?

Sophie Cleverly: It was back when I was studying Creative Writing at university. One day we were asked to do a writing exercise in which we had to imagine someone entering a room that they hadn’t set foot in for a long time. I pictured a room with twin beds in it, but only saw one girl entering, which gave me the idea for a story about a lost twin. By the end of the lesson, I’d written a short chapter where Ivy found her twin’s secret diary and everything sort of fell into place from there.

GM: What made you decide to set the series in the 1930s?

SC: I knew when the story came into my head that it was historical because it was an old fashioned room. I quickly realized as well that with a story about uncovering secrets via a diary, it would work much better to set it in a time period without phones and email. After dabbling with a few different options, I decided to go with the 1930s because it was a period that really interested me that wasn’t being depicted in many books at the time.

GM: Was it important to you to create a series where female voices were so prominent?

SC: Definitely! After hearing about things like the Bechdel Test, I really liked the idea of a series where the focus is almost entirely on girls and women due to the all-girls school environment. I went to an all-girls school myself (though it wasn’t private or a boarding school), so it was very familiar to me. I wanted to showcase female voices with a wide range of differences.

GM: What scene did you enjoy writing the most across the series?

SC: There were so many that were really fun to write—particularly the school trip scenes in The Lights Under The Lake and the Halloween ones in The Curse in the Candlelight. But I think my favorite was the letter that the twins find from their mother. I really felt as if she were writing through me—and I cried a lot!

GM: Which was your favorite twin to write and do you feel like you identify with one more than the other?

SC: I am definitely more like Ivy, I think. I am quite shy and bookish but have the occasional urge to have fun and go on adventures! But I have to say that Scarlet is my favorite twin to write as I sort of live vicariously through her. She isn’t afraid to stand up for herself and loves getting in all sorts of trouble.

GM: Were there any other characters you especially enjoyed writing? If so, what was it about them that inspired you?

SC: I really love the twins’ best friend Ariadne. She is so enjoyable to write as she’s very clever and funny, whilst at the same time being terribly “uncool.” I wanted to write someone that the twins might write off as annoying or weird, only to discover that once you get to know her she is fantastic—brave and fun and a wonderfully loyal friend. I would love to have a friend like her and I would strive to be the same way myself!

GM: Was there anything you edited out of the books that you wish could have stayed in?

SC: Mostly my terrible jokes… I often have silly jokes that my editors don’t get and tell me to take out. (Sometimes I don’t listen!) But at least I keep myself amused when writing.

GM: What’s next for you now the series has concluded?

SC: After having a bit of a break due to the birth of my daughter, I am working on a new series which is due to start next year. It’s all a bit of a secret at the moment, but I hope it will appeal to my fans.

GM: Are there any books or authors you would recommend to fans of Scarlet & Ivy?

SC: For more historical mystery, I would definitely recommend the Murder Most Unladylike series, the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart books. And although they’re completely different, some children’s books I have absolutely loved recently are Nevermoor and The House With Chicken Legs—both incredibly magical and mysterious, and full of twists and turns. My all-time favorite authors are Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, so I’d always encourage readers to check out their work, especially the Tiffany Aching series and The Graveyard Book.

GM: Finally, my nine-year-old son would like to ask what made you choose to add in the character of Rose in The Whispers in the Walls?

SC: To start with, I loved the idea of students believing Rookwood to be haunted by a ghost, only to find out that it was a real person all along. This was inspired by the many ghost rumors from when I was at school, and, of course, the classic set up from things like Scooby Doo—“the ghost was just a person all along!” Once I had that idea, I began to think more about who the person could be and where they might have come from. I don’t want to give away too much for those who haven’t read the book yet, but Rose’s backstory ties into Scarlet’s. I liked having an unseen person who had been affected by previous events in the story.

As for Rose’s character, she is quite different to the other girls—she is very shy, she struggles with speech and learning (often being selectively mute), and has a special interest in horses. Her differences wouldn’t be well understood in those days, but I wanted to show that she could be an important part of the group, too.

GeekMom received the Scarlet & Ivy books via Audible for review purposes.

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