Don’t Breathe a Word by Jennifer McMahon

Teilo. The fairy-king. A story that Phoebe had been told as a child, something that her alcoholic mother had believed in until her death, in a bathtub of water surrounded by iron and other objects repellent to the fairy world. And there is a legend that says, in a town called Reliance, an entire village mysteriously disappeared one day. There, Phoebe knows, her boyfriend Sam’s sister, Lisa, also mysteriously disappeared when she was 12 years old. She believed in fairies, in Teilo, and that he would come take her away with him.  But what really happened to Lisa fifteen years ago, and what is the connection between that and Sam’s strange cousin Evie who knows more than she’s letting on? Partly written from Lisa’s perspective, and partly pieced together by Phoebe fifteen years later, Don’t Breathe a Word is an equally exciting and terrifying tale for anyone who’s ever believed in a fairy world, or the dark shadow man who lurks behind doors and at the corners of our vision.


Similar Book Recommendations:

Also by Jennifer McMahon are the books The Winter People, Promise Not to Tell, The One I Left Behind, Island of Lost Girls, and Dismantled.

Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman is thriller about a mother and her teenage daughter move to a college town where a girl falls to her death off a gorge, and soon superstition, possible murder, and tragic fairy tales collide.

Demon Lover, the first part of the Fairwick Chronicles series by Juliet Dark (Carol Goodman) also blurs the lines between the fairy world and ours, with a female professor who has been dreaming about a cursed member of the fae, and whose newly purchased home borders a wood which may contain a portal between our worlds.

The Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan is a thriller about small town secrets, kept by a priest, involving police and criminals alike, and even the town’s notorious, elderly recluse.


Themed Recipe:

Strawberries appeared multiple times throughout the novel, from fresh ones in the woods, to the strawberry cake that Phoebe and Evie ate in the kitchen together while trying to piece together Lisa’s story. And chocolate fudge, “lots of fudge” was what Lisa and Sam’s father had requested they bring back from Cape Cod the last time they saw him in a “normal” state of mind.

Strawberry Cupcakes with Chocolate Fudge Frosting:


  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 2 sticks salted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract, divided
  • 2 eggs
  • ¾  tsp strawberry flavoring extract or baking emulsion
  • ¼ cup milk

Preheat oven to 350°F. In the bowl of a stand mixer on medium speed, whip 2 sticks of salted room temperature butter for 1-2 minutes, until soft and spread out across the bowl. Turn off the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Drop the speed to low and add milk, eggs, strawberry extract, ½ tsp vanilla extract, and sugar. Stop to scrape the sides of the bowl with a spatula, then mix until all are fully incorporated. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Slowly add these to the wet mixture in the stand mixer on low speed. Add flour mix in one-third increments and continue on low speed until completely added. Scoop batter into a cupcake tin lined with cupcake liners or sprayed with nonstick cooking spray. Bake at 350°F for 18-22 minutes until an inserted toothpick comes out clean of raw batter from the center of the cupcake.  

For the Frosting:

  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 sticks salted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 ¼ cups Hot fudge sauce
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Beat the butter on medium speed for two minutes. Drop the speed to the lowest setting and add the powdered sugar one cup at a time. Before adding the second cup, add the teaspoon of vanilla extract and hot fudge sauce. Mix just until fully combined, then transfer to a piping bag and pipe onto cupcakes that have been cooled at least ten minutes prior.

I followed the Pioneer Woman’s recipe for hot fudge sauce, but you can use a jar of sauce from the store instead of homemade if you’d prefer.


Discussion Questions:

  1. Phoebe was a list maker. “Nothing seemed to make sense until she’d written it out on paper, and nothing seemed accomplished unless she crossed it off.” Do you think her mother was that way at all? How was Sam similar to that in one area of his life, and different in other areas? Why? What personality type do you think Phoebe had?
  2. In the beginning, am had told Phoebe that “life was full of coincidences-it was superstitious to assign meaning to every one of them.” Did he truly believe that, or only regarding certain things? Why did Phoebe assign meaning to things?
  3. Evie believed in magic, in things like ghosts and reincarnation,” just like Lisa. Why did Evie believe, and how did that affect her life later? What about for Lisa? Why do some people who suffer some of the trauma Evie did, become calloused and refuse to believe in anything but what they can see and touch?
  4. “Lisa thought it was fairies because that’s just what she wanted it to be, what she’d been waiting her whole life for. But what if it worked the other way around? What if things happened to you—special, magic things—because you’d been preparing for them?” How had Lisa prepared for them? How had Phoebe? Did Sam, or was he pulled into it because of Lisa? Did they create their own fate, or did their inevitable fate just happened to them? How does this concept tie into what Lisa said about storytelling: “…wasn’t about making things up. It was more like inviting the stories to come through her, let themselves be told”?
  5. “Fairies like gifts. Especially sweets. And shiny, sparkly things. Not iron, though.” why is this? Are there any other legends about the fae that you know of? What about their appearances—do you think they look, as Evie believes, “more like us…like humans, only they’re not. They’re like our shadows…dark, magic”? Why are there so many cute pictures of them?
  6. Sam used to think that “Lisa had it easy. She got to be the one to disappear. She didn’t have to say goodbye to Dad or go to the funeral or deal with things after. She got to just slip away.” But did she really? Why did Sam think that way? What do you think he thinks now? Why is it unwise to compare ourselves and our lives to other people’s?
  7. Lisa asked Evie “If you could wish for anything, no matter how big, how impossible, what would you wish for?” Evie didn’t answer, but what do you think her answer would have been? What was Lisa’s? What would Sam or Phoebe have said, and would their answers have been different at different ages? What would yours be?
  8. “Some say fairies are the dead. Like ghosts stuck in their own world.” This was written in the journal Phoebe found. Why did the author think that? What wound up being true by the end of the novel, or was that question left unanswered? What do you think Sam believes in versus Phoebe, and why? What about you?
  9. Phoebe often wondered what kind of mother she’d be, and “if she was genetically programmed to be lousy at it.” Are there genetic predispositions to certain negative habits we pick up from our parents and pass on to our children? How do we resist them? What kind of mother do you think Lisa would have been? Do you think the ending of the story would have altered her parenting?
  10. Why did Becca, and so many others in Reliance, believe that you couldn’t “run from the Dark Man”? How did they try and fail at it? Have you ever witnessed a “Dark Man” in the corner of your eyesight, like Phoebe had, or in any other way? From where do you think he got his power, and shouldn’t there be a counter to it?
  11. Why was Lisa obsessed with sweets and the cooking channel? Why did they compare her to a honey bee, and how is the following analogy applicable to her situation: “A bee queen isn’t born a queen…she’s made. The workers choose an unborn bee, tend to it, stuff it full of royal jelly. No one knows how they pick the next queen. They just do.” Does this apply to anyone else in the story, and if so, how? Do you have any theories on how a queen of each type (bees and fairies) is chosen?
  12. Why did Lisa trust Teilo so much that she made the horrible tea recipe that could have killed her just to follow him? Why did she want so badly for him to take her “away from this place, from these people. To see what it was like on the other side”? Is this a metaphor as well? What are the dangers of such thinking and how could they be reversed?
  13. Phoebe understood Lisa’s longing and even pondered “Didn’t everyone…have a secret longing to be more special than the guy next door? Didn’t everyone secretly wish there was another world you could find a doorway to, step inside, and become queen?”Why would that be so appealing to Phoebe or her mother, or to Lisa, or to Evie? What kind of person might not be swayed by that type of thinking? Is discontentment the doorway that predators feed off of? How did it lead to the final circumstances of the novel and were there any other drivers?  

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