52 pages 1 hour read

Margaret Peterson Haddix

The Strangers

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


The Strangers is a young adult mystery novel published in 2019 by the American author Margaret Peterson Haddix. It tells the story of the three Greystone children who seek to unravel a kidnapping mystery. It is Volume 1 in the Greystone Secrets series, which Haddix returned to in 2020 with Volume 2, The Deceivers. Haddix is the author of more than 40 books for kids and teens, including the Shadow Children series, the Missing series, and the Children of Exile series.

Plot Summary

The Strangers tells the story of Chess, Emma, and Finn Greystone who live in Ohio with their mother, Kate. Their father died eight years ago. One day, when they come home from school, the kids find their mother visibly upset, reading a news story about three kidnapped kids in Arizona, the Gustanos. In a bizarre coincidence, the three kids have the same names and birthdays as the Greystones. That night, Chess overhears his mother, uncharacteristically angry, on a phone call with a man named Joe, telling him, “You have to fix this. Or so help me, I will” (24). The next day, she announces that she has to go out of town on a business trip, and Ms. Morales—a woman they barely know—will be watching them until she gets back.

The kids are anxious when their mother doesn’t call the next day. Their anxiety is compounded by Ms. Morales’s extreme caution when picking them up from school. Also, one of Finn’s classmates says he saw Finn’s mother running out of a bank holding a bag, even suggesting that she robbed it. Things get even more strange when the children discover a text from their mother, intended for Ms. Morales, saying that she may never return. Desperate to solve the mystery, the kids, with the help of Ms. Morales’s 13-year-old daughter, Natalie, sneak into Ms. Morales’s office that night and search for clues on Kate’s phone and laptop. Kate’s text message referred to a “letter” that would explain everything, so they search for that first. When they find it, it’s written in code, a perfect challenge for Emma who loves math, numbers, and secret codes. Meanwhile, Natalie finds news footage of the Gustanos’ mother pleading for the safe return of her children. They are shocked to find she looks exactly like their own mother.

After several late nights of working in secret, Finn stumbles upon a clue in the seemingly random dot patterns in his mother’s business logo. When aligned correctly, the dots are a map of their mother’s basement office with a star marking a secret door. Emma also begins to decode the letter, which tells of an “alternate universe,” the Greystone’s real place of birth, and the place to which their mother disappeared in an effort to rescue the kidnapped Gustano kids. Chess, Emma, Finn, and Natalie—who is now a committed member of the rescue operation—enter their mother’s office and find the secret door behind a bookcase. On the other side, they discover what Natalie calls a “panic room,” stocked with emergency food, water, and boxes of cash. They also find a mysterious lever. When they pull it, the room spins, and when it stops, they step out into a dark, deserted basement.

The strange house is utterly barren, and when they step outside, the world is different too: the sky is gray, and the yard is overgrown with weeds and surrounded by a tall, dilapidated fence. Exploring beyond the yard, they are approached by some older boys who recognize Natalie and tell the story of a criminal who was recently captured in the neighborhood. Before they can elaborate, Ms. Morales appears, having found the secret door and come through herself. The boys flee, apparently afraid of her, and everyone returns to the “real” world.

Convinced their mother is on the “other side” and in trouble, the Greystones and Natalie resolve to go back and find her. They fabricate an excuse to convince Ms. Morales to drive them to their house. They enter the panic room, pull the lever, and once more find themselves in the alternate world. Intending to just look for clues and return, instead they learn their mother is about to stand trial that day. With no time to lose, they follow a crowd to an imposing government building. Inside, the crowd files into an auditorium, and on the stage is their mother, shackled to a chair and awaiting her trial.

The judge, Susanna Morales, is identical to Natalie’s mother, although she is an evil version, in Finn’s estimation. This world is an authoritarian state that controls its citizens through technology and fear. Kate Greystone stands accused of plotting against the government. When Finn indiscreetly shouts out that his mother is innocent, guards rush into the crowd, but he is hidden by a friendly woman. Realizing they might have allies in the crowd, Emma scans the faces around them and sees a man gesturing for her attention. He holds a piece of paper with a crooked heart on it, the symbol of the resistance. The man is Joe, and he offers help. Together, they sneak to the side of the stage and, using Natalie’s handprint, open a door. Under cover of darkness, they sneak on to the stage and try to free their mother. While Joe tries to unlock Kate’s shackles, the kids distract the guards with smoke bombs. Unable to free their mother, they grab the Gustano kids—who have been dragged onstage to coerce a confession from Kate—flee the auditorium, and run for home.

Eluding the state police—and with the help of Ms. Morales who has entered the alternate world again—they find the secret tunnel. With the police close behind, they make their way back to the panic room, and Chess pulls the lever from the wall, effectively closing off the portal and trapping Kate and Joe there. In the chaos and resulting explosion, Ms. Morales is trapped on the other side as well. With the Gustanos safely back in their own world and reunited with their parents, Natalie, Chess, Emma, and Finn resolve to find their way back and rescue Kate, Joe, and Ms. Morales.