A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What 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.
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What's the story?
On the third day after her father's death, young Liesl discovers two ghosts sharing the attic in which she's been locked for months by her stepmother. Po, the formerly human one, bears a message from her father suggesting that his ashes must be scattered at the grave of Liesl's late mother in order for him to find peace. Meanwhile, Will, a much abused apprentice to the local alchemist (who, unbeknownst to the local populace, is responsible for having removed the sun from the sky five years earlier), commits a fateful delivery error involving the ashes that sets the two children and two ghosts on a momentous and dangerous journey.
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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