A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Presents young readers with philosophical issues they've probably encountered in fairy tales and will meet again more seriously later: life and death, the nature of the afterlife, the physical realities (if any) of ghostly existence.
Persevering goodness triumphs over perils both personal and cosmic as Liesl and her friends try to lay her father's ghost to rest and restore light and harmony to the world.
Positive Role Models
Liesl is resolutely devoted to her late father throughout, and she also shows kindness and consideration to her friends. The ghost Po, torn between the world of the dead and the living, helps Liesl and her father when it might be easier to do otherwise. Will is devoted to Liesl and ingenious in figuring out ways to help her. The guard Mo is extremely kind-hearted and goes to great lengths to render assistance to those he perceives to be in need.
Violence & Scariness
There's a heavily gothic vibe to this book, which takes place partly in the world of disembodied spirits and partly in an unnamed but vaguely Victorian world in which the sun hasn't shone for five years, and the darkness carries over into assorted grotesque villains and their surroundings, especially the alchemist's laboratory and its lovingly described inventory of body parts. Violence is threatened and otherwise alluded to with enthusiastic frequency. Most dramatically, Liesl's evil stepmother has murdered her father and is now trying to murder Liesl. But the villains are too cartoonish to be taken very seriously.
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Products & Purchases
This story unfolds in alternate time and place, but the wicked stepmother's conspicuous consumption is cast in an unfavorable light.
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that author Lauren Oliver has published two huge young adult fantasy bestsellers -- Before I Fall and Delirium. This ghost story is her first book for younger readers, and those with older sisters or GFs may be attracted to it for the name recognition. While it's an age-appropriate fantasy, Liesl & Po asserts a particular version of post-mortem reality -- and the physics involved -- that may or may not coincide with what you're teaching your children about the afterlife, so this may bring up some issues. It also has a lot of grotesque imagery with regard to the villains and their accouterments, which, while generally comic in its treatment, may be troubling to younger or sensitive children.
Is It Any Good?
A little girl locked in an attic, a boy determined to save her, two ghosts helping them both -- should be a can't-miss formula; unfortunately, LIESL & PO misses. Author Oliver explains in a foreword that this book grew out of her own healing process after the death of her best friend, making it into the story of a little girl's quest to restore a loved one's ashes to a peaceful place and in the process restore light and life to a world gone dark. That in itself is a tall order for a kids' book. But she chooses storytelling elements -- comically grotesque villains, cartoonish ancillary characters, spirits that often seem more vehicles for the discussion of metaphysical concepts than compelling personalities, and multiple convenient plot devices that strain credulity, even in an alternative reality -- that result in a somewhat confused tone and muddled narrative.
While kids, especially girls, intrigued with the ghost-friend theme might enjoy this, and there are echoes of the death and dystopia themes found in Oliver's teen bestsellers that will probably give this book cachet with young readers in the know, there are better examples of almost all the elements uneasily thrown together here. For a story about an orphaned Victorian girl and her friends restoring life to a barren corner of the world, try Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, which has been loved for generations for good reason. For a (scarier) tale of a living girl who shares the experiences of a ghost, try Pemba's Song: A Ghost Story. Perhaps the ultimate classic tale of the girl who befriends a troubled ghost and helps him find peace is Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost; if your young reader finds the prose a bit formidable, take heart -- the 1996 Emmy-winning TV-movie version with Patrick Stewart and Neve Campbell is out on DVD.
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