When I need a break from young adult books and their ever-present danger, excitement, and nervous blush of first love, I turn to fantasy, middle grade, and the ketchup bottle label. Okay, so not actually the label. But this is the truth: sometimes you need a different sort of story to stir the heart, fire up your sense of wonder, and make the whole world new again.
Thus, I love middle grade fantasies, which combine two favorite elements. The original attraction may be due to fond childhood memories of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, or that I keep being pleased to bits by the middle grade books I do pick up. Whatever the case, it segues nicely into an introduction of Lauren Oliver’s Liesl & Po (which is, as you’ve probably guessed, a middle grade fantasy).
Liesl lives in a tiny attic bedroom, locked away by her cruel stepmother. Her only friends are the shadows and the mice—until one night a ghost appears from the darkness. It is Po, who comes from the Other Side. Both Liesl and Po are lonely, but together they are less alone.
That same night, an alchemist's apprentice, Will, bungles an important delivery. He accidentally switches a box containing the most powerful magic in the world with one containing something decidedly less remarkable.Will's mistake has tremendous consequences for Liesl and Po, and it draws the three of them together on an extraordinary journey.From New York Times bestselling author Lauren Oliver comes a luminous and magnificent novel that glows with rare magic, ghostly wonders, and a true friendship that lights even the darkest of places.
Liesl is a small girl locked in an attic, in a world where the sun hasn’t shone in a very long time. Her father has just died when a ghost appears. That is the start of her adventure. Meanwhile, in the same city, an alchemist’s apprentice is caught in an error and must make his way in the world. And a ghost (yes, the same one that visits Liesl!) finds itself pulled into the living world and makes decisions that will change all three of them. What follows is a sweet, predictable tale about heart, finding happiness, and letting go.
After all of my blather about middle grade fantasy, I feel I should mention something. While Liesl & Po does have magic and an alternate world, I think that in its essence it is an allegory. For evidence, I present this excerpt, from page 96:
“(That was the kind of world they lived in: When people were afraid, they did not always do what they knew to be right. They turned away. They closed their eyes. They said, Tomorrow. Tomorrow, perhaps, I’ll do something about it. And they said that until they died.)”
Beyond the ‘moral’ in that paragraph, I submit that the book itself works best if looked at as a fable. It is charming and an easy read, but it is also simplistic. The edges fray a bit if you pull hard. So it is best to take it at face value, to read it quickly and appreciate its descriptions of magic and emotion, and move on. That isn’t to say I didn’t like it – I did! But I like it better when I don’t dig deeply.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the lovely artwork by Kei Acedera. Liesl & Po is beautifully illustrated, and this thoughtful touch only adds to the appeal of the story.
Side note: In the past few months I’ve read books by authors I wasn’t keen on (due to previous experience). Both times, I’ve been surprised and quite pleased to find that their recent work changed my mind. Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races and Lauren Oliver’s Liesl & Po were enchanting, and I shall be looking for more from them in the future.
Recommended for: fans of middle grade fantasy and fables, and those who for one day would like to see the sun come out from behind the gray.