The Year of Shadows

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Year of Shadows Book Poster Image
Snarky, artistic tween girl shines in poignant ghost story.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Kids already acquainted with classical music will love the way it's woven into the plot and Olivia's DNA. Those for whom it's a new subject will pick up intriguing suggestions for future listening, as well as the interesting backstories of the musical pieces. Readers will also pick up occasional words and phrases in Italian and other languages, as well as insights into daily life during historic eras as Olivia and Henry revisit the ghosts' lives.

Positive Messages

Strong mesages about kindness, forgiveness, love, and loyalty to family and friends. The novel also reflects and encourages a love of music and art.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Though she says she hates her father, Olivia is devoted to her frail, funny grandmother, and over the course of the story makes friends, shows kindness and courage, and learns understanding and empathy. Her friend Henry is clever, brave, and loyal, and their mutual friend Joan is protective, confident, and fearless. When things are really dire, the extended community of musicians comes to the rescue.


Some of the ghosts tend to lose body parts or be strangely assembled. The kids experience the deaths of many ghosts, including children, some of whom were killed in war and at least one of whom was murdered by a friend. Some malevolent spirits are trying to destroy living and dead people. Olivia tries to punch a boy who's tormenting her, but a friend intervenes.


A few kisses on the cheek.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that there are plenty of ghosts and other spooky beings, some good and some evil, in The Year of Shadows, the second middle-grade novel by author Claire Legrand. But unlike her first, The Cavendish School for Boys and Girls, it's no horror story. In this sweetly snarky, poignant tale of the supernatural, the terrors come less from the afterlife than from this one -- losing loved ones, losing your home, losing your job. Many young readers may find this more frightening than mere figments of the imagination.

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What's the story?

Twelve-year-old Olivia Stellatella's life has been getting steadily worse since her mother disappeared some months ago. As far as she's concerned, her father, an eccentric orchestra conductor, is to blame for driving her mom away. Now, as money gets tighter and they lose their house, he moves the family into the back room of the decrepit theater that's home to the orchestra. Just when it couldn't possibly get worse, she meets four resident ghosts, just a few of the many restless spirits whose fate is tied to that of the building -- and THE YEAR OF SHADOWS begins.

Is it any good?

Tough-talking, internally fragile Olivia is a winning heroine whose sarcastic narrative voice is engaging and emotionally real as she makes unexpected discoveries and survives harrowing adventures. Karl Kwasny's black-and-white illustrations bring her and her surroundings to life. The description of life after death and the various challenges facing the spirits is imaginative, but may raise questions in the minds of some young readers.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why stories about the relationships between people and ghosts are so popular. How does The Year of Shadows compare with other ghost stories you know? Is the story trying to scare you, or teach you something else?

  • Do you know any of the classical music pieces that come up in The Year of Shadows? How is music part of the story here?

  • Do you find Olivia's feelings believable? How would you feel if your mom suddenly disappeared and you never heard from her again?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love fantasy and strong female characters

Themes & Topics

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