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A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that it takes Ivy most of the book to stop being a victim (of poverty, of cruel relatives, of drug addiction) and assert herself. Set in Victorian England, the novel features seedy neighborhoods, theft, suggestions of prostitution, attempted murder, and drug use.
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What's the story?
A 5-year-old orphan with flaming red hair, Ivy is enticed to join Carroty Kate and her gang of thieves as they "skin" rich children of their clothes. To quiet the agitated girl, they give Ivy laudanum, an opiate that makes her sleepy. After a police officer catches Carroty Kate in what appears to be a violent robbery, Ivy returns to her impoverished life with her aunt and cousins, already a drug addict at age 7. The story then jumps to Ivy as teenager, still addicted and now a model for Oscar, a pre-Raphaelite artist. Ivy must overcome her poor upbringing, her addiction, and Oscar's mother's dangerous intentions if she wants to find her own happiness working with animals.
Is it any good?
Teen readers may find the Victorian narrative style off-putting until they get into the story, transported to the slums of 19th-century London. Historical fiction fans will relish swindle tricks such as spiffing up old canaries by painting them yellow and boiling wizened oranges to swell them before sale.
Ivy can be a frustratingly passive main character (she's always sleepy from the laudanum), but she shows hints of spunk. Illiterate and unschooled, she creates her own paint color names ("waste-of-time white") since colors such as "burnt sienna" mean nothing to her. Placed in precarious but intentionally ridiculous situations (posed as Eve in a tablecloth stained with food smells to attract a python wrapping itself around her), Ivy relies on common sense to maintain her dignity. In a feminist nod, Ivy rejects being called "spineless" and manages to carve out her own life without being saved by a man.
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