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Basil & Dahlia

A Tragical Tale of Sinister Sweetness

Illustrated by Shane Cluskey

About The Book

Two orphan siblings with truly terrible luck battle an evil celebrity chef in this uproarious illustrated middle grade romp with the dark humor of A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Beast and the Bethany.

It’s hard to imagine things could get worse after one’s parents die in a greenhouse explosion. But that is precisely what happens to Basil and his younger sister, Dahlia. They escape from the social worker who wants to split them up to different foster homes by jumping off a moving train, only to find themselves wounded (Dahlia) and bedraggled (Basil) and without a soul to care for them. What’s more, they’re lost in the wilds of New York City.

Famished and alone, they wander into Cravings, the delectable bakery owned by Laurel Fox, disgraced celebrity chef with a soft spot for poor, hungry orphans. When she offers them luxurious accommodations and all the éclairs they can eat, Basil and Dahlia dare to hope their luck has changed at last. But the savvy reader will know it can’t be as simple as all that! Laurel Fox is out for redemption, and she’ll do anything to get the sinister secret ingredient she requires.


Chapter 1: Other People’s Children

1 Other People’s Children
In Basil’s defense, it was a complete accident when he blew up the greenhouse and killed his parents. His little sister, Dahlia, on the other hand, fully intended to shove that celebrity baking sensation into her oven.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The main thing you need to know is that Basil and Dahlia’s parents were world-famous botanists who had double-handedly discovered a previously unknown vine in the depths of the Brazilian rainforests, the seeds of which appeared to contain the cure for the common cold.

Basil and Dahlia had never once set foot inside a school, having grown up assisting their parents in the day-to-day running of the (now sadly exploded) greenhouse, while also pursuing their own learning passions. It had been a blissful childhood thus far, but the blissful phase was over and a distinctly less blissful phase was poised to begin.

Basil and Dahlia were now sitting side by side on an eastbound train, heading away from the smoldering ruins of the greenhouse and toward the big city of Philadelphia. City of Benjamin Franklin. City of cheesesteak sandwiches. City of Brotherly Love.

Basil wasn’t feeling much brotherly love toward Dahlia at the moment, though, on account of her abominable behavior toward Mrs. Hassenblasset, the social worker who had been charged with their care.

“We’re not in her care,” muttered Dahlia as she defaced Mrs. Hassenblasset’s magazine, drawing elaborate facial hair onto the beautifully groomed and very famous chef featured on the cover. “Care means she likes us, like it matters to her what happens to us, which it doesn’t.”

And the truth is: Dahlia was right. I don’t mean to say Mrs. Hassenblasset had any wicked intentions. Nor do I mean to say that there aren’t any well-intentioned social workers out there, ferrying children around out of the deep goodness of their hearts. I only mean to say that Mrs. Hassenblasset was overworked, overtired, and extremely ready to be done with her day’s work so she could go home, warm up some supper, and not think about other people’s children for another second.

But Basil had been told to mind Mrs. Hassenblasset, and Basil was the sort of boy who did what he was told. While Mrs. Hassenblasset had not expressly forbidden Dahlia to draw a curly mustache and spiky beard on the lovely blond television chef’s face, Basil was fairly sure it didn’t qualify as minding.

“She’ll be back from the bathroom any second,” he hissed. “Put that down.”

Dahlia shrugged and tossed the magazine onto Mrs. Hassenblasset’s seat. She grinned a little at her handiwork.

Basil scowled. Now it was the first thing Mrs. Hassenblasset would see, and what was more, he was the one sitting next to her. It would look like it had been his doing. While Basil had no previous experience with his new status as an orphan and the debilitating guilt that comes from the near certainty that one has killed one’s parents, he had abundant experience with taking the fall for Dahlia’s antics.

He snatched the magazine and shoved it under his seat just as Mrs. Hassenblasset came trudging up the aisle.

I would very much like to tell you that Mrs. Hassenblasset was a hard, angular woman with cheekbones that looked like they could slice granite, because a woman who cares for children without caring for children really ought to look hard and angular. And what’s more, she ought to relieve her stress by stealing away to the bathroom to smoke a cigarette or four. But this is a children’s book and we mustn’t talk about cigarettes, which will black your lungs and kill you dead.

The truth is, Mrs. Hassenblasset was completely unexceptional and void of any and all interesting or vulgar habits. She looked and acted like the color beige—a perfectly serviceable color for useful things like curtains or planters, but it’s nobody’s favorite and nobody bothers to hate it either.

Beige Mrs. Hassenblasset plunked herself down in her seat and reached for her magazine. Which was not there.

“I’m sure I left it right here,” she said, thoroughly inspecting the empty seat pocket in front of her. “I was right in the middle of that article about Laurel Fox, too.”

Basil’s stomach clenched as Mrs. Hassenblasset searched. Dahlia might have defaced the magazine, but he had, in effect, stolen it.

“Oh well,” she said. “I suppose I shall just have to pick up the latest issue after we drop off the girl.”

Dahlia’s head snapped up. “Which girl, Mrs. Hastyblaster?”

Mrs. Hassenblasset scowled, likely torn between a desire to correct Dahlia on the pronunciation of her name and the knowledge that she was an orphan with nary a relative in the world. Besides Basil. “You, dear,” she finally said. “After we drop you off at the home where you’ll be staying, and before we drop your brother off at the home where he’ll be staying.” She pronounced each word very carefully, as though Dahlia were quite dim. “Then I will get myself a nice new magazine.”

Basil’s stomach clenched still further as Dahlia’s wide eyes met his across the aisle. Of all the horrors that had befallen them since the sound of shattering glass changed their lives forever, neither of them had considered this possibility: they were to be separated.

Oblivious, Mrs. Hassenblasset dug out her knitting as the announcer’s voice crackled and proclaimed something unintelligible.

Dahlia recovered first and straightened up in her seat as though she had understood the announcer. “Oh, Basil. Did you hear? Oak Town Station!”

Basil couldn’t respond. He was still processing what Mrs. Hassenblasset had just said. They were all they had left in the world, and they were to be separated.

Dahlia turned her attention to Mrs. Hassenblasset. “Mother was born in Oak Town,” she said with the slightest hint of a sniffle. That got Basil’s attention. Their mother, after all, had been born in San Francisco. “And how she loved it,” Dahlia went on, her voice quavering slightly. “She always said she wanted to be buried there… if only there’d been a body.”

Mrs. Hassenblasset let out a controlled breath, rather like the steam from a teapot just before it begins to scream. All she wanted was to get these children where they were supposed to go, without any histrionics in between. But the truth was, the children were in Mrs. Hassenblasset’s care, even if Dahlia quibbled with the terminology.

“I’m so sorry, dear,” she finally said.

Basil heard brakes whining and wheels protesting as the train began to slow.

“I really must see Oak Town Station,” Dahlia said. “For Mama.” And then, to lovely effect, she turned and gazed out the window while one tear trickled down her cheek. Basil didn’t know what Dahlia’s game was, but he couldn’t help feeling a bit miffed that she seemed unconcerned about being separated.

Mrs. Hassenblasset opened her mouth but then snapped it shut, reconsidering her approach.

“There’s absolutely nothing in Oak Town, dear,” Mrs. Hassenblasset finally said, and then rushed on in horror. “Except I’m sure it’s a perfectly lovely place to be from, and I’m sure your mother was perfectly lovely too. It’s only that there’s nothing to see from the station, and we certainly can’t get off the train. But I suppose if you’d really like to see, we could go stand toward the back of the car, where you’ll have the best view.”

Dahlia’s chin wobbled imperceptibly—even as he controlled his annoyance with her, Basil had to marvel at how she managed that—and she stood up. “Thanks very much, Mrs. Hassenblasset, but I think I’d rather keep this moment private. Among people who understand what it is to hail from Oak Town.”

Mrs. Hassenblasset shrank into her seat. “Yes, dear. I didn’t mean…”

“Basil?” Dahlia was standing in the aisle now, and Basil knew that if he did not give in and go with her, this little scene would go on and on.

“Yes, all right, I’m coming,” he said. The train had slowed down a great deal as they moved toward the back of the car. “What’s the game, Dahl? Mom was born in San Francisco—”

“I know where Mom was born,” Dahlia snapped. “I’m smarter than you think.”

“I know that, I—”

“Didn’t you hear what she said? Me to one home, you to another? Is that what you want?”

“Of course not!” So Dahlia had been bothered by that declaration. That was something, at least.

“Good.” As if that settled matters, Dahlia turned and opened the door that led out of the car.

Basil grabbed her hand. “What are you doing?”

“Getting the best possible view of Oak Town,” Dahlia said, and she stepped out onto the tiny platform between the train cars.

The train had slowed considerably. However, it was still a moving train. As the elder brother, Basil had the vague notion that he should not be terrified when his younger sister showed no fear. But Basil was rather more attached to his life than his ideals. He hovered in the doorway.

“Get back in here.”

“I will not, and if you care about me one bit, you’ll come out here too.”

“But what are you doing? You’ve never even heard of Oak Town.”

“Have so. I’ve heard it’s the next stop.”

“Dahlia, please! I don’t see how this helps anything—”

“I’m not going to be separated from you. You’re not much, but you’re all I have.”

“Thank you? But I still don’t see—”

The train turned, taking the curve a smidgen too quickly, and Basil lost his grip on the door, which shut with his baby sister still outside, straddling the iron tracks. He hauled the door back open again and stepped out as cautiously as possible. The train had very nearly stopped.

“We’re jumping,” Dahlia said, her jaw set.

“We are not!” Basil said under his breath, though there was no way Mrs. Hassenblasset or anyone else could have heard him over the screaming of the brakes.

“I am,” Dahlia said, her chin lifted high. “And you’re coming with me. At least we’ll be together.”

But the train hadn’t stopped. It was still moving very slowly, but to Basil’s enormous relief, it had gone by the tiny platform that passed for a station and now seemed to be picking up speed.

About The Author

Photograph © Joy McCullough-Carranza

Joy McCullough writes books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She is the author of the middle grade novels Across the Pond, A Field Guide to Getting LostNot Starring Zadie LouiseCode Red, and Basil & Dahlia, as well as the middle grade series Team Awkward, and the picture books Harriet’s Ruffled Feathers, Champ and Major: First Dogs, and The Story of a Book. Her debut novel Blood Water Paint was longlisted for the National Book Award and was a William C. Morris Debut Award Finalist. Visit her at

About The Illustrator

Shane Cluskey is an illustrator from Galway, Ireland. His work has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators and by American Illustration, and he has worked with such clients as the New YorkerThe Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. His favorite dessert is a warm chocolate brownie covered in ice cream (without the secret ingredient). You can see more of his work at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (May 21, 2024)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781665944236
  • Grades: 3 - 7
  • Ages: 8 - 12

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Raves and Reviews

“A quirky, lightly magical mystery filled with mouthwatering food and sinister adults. . . . McCullough's character work shines: the titular heroes struggle with guilt over their parents' demise even as they consistently support each other; the creative yet dastardly villains are only outshone by the everyday workers who step up to help. . . . Stark, stylized illustrations from Cluskey (The Sackville Street Caper) are perfectly creepy and help set the unconventional tone."

Shelf Awareness

"[A] bitingly humorous and appealingly weird action-adventure narrative studded with surreal illustrations by Cluskey."

Publishers Weekly, 4/29/24

“A cross between ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ and ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ this is a whimsical and suspenseful story about two formerly homeschooled orphans. . . . Fans of Lemony Snicket and Western fairy tales will devour this darkly humorous read.”

School Library Journal, 5/1/24

“ . . . the piquant tale is rich in twists made all the more delicious by Cluskey’s retro-style illustrations and the narrative’s mildly gothic tone.”

Booklist, 3/1/24

"[A] comically arch third-person narrator. . . a pleasingly over-the-top villain surrounded by ridiculously self-serving sycophants . . . edgy, stylish, black-and-white illustrations that have a retro feeling and enhance the drama. A deliciously satisfying romp."

Kirkus Reviews

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