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Liesel & Po, written by Lauren Oliver, illustrations by Kei Acerdera, 32o pp, RL 4

Liesl & Po is now in paperback! 
Not sure which cover I like better...

Lauren Oliver has made quite a name for herself with her two young adult novels, Before I Fall and Delirium, a book I love almost as much Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, which is high praise. I was intrigued to learn that Oliver had written middle grade novel, especially after reading the author's note at the beginning of Liesl & Po. Oliver shares that she wrote the book in burst in 2009  following the loss of her best friend. Oliver writes, "Liesl's journey was my own. Liesl & Po is the most personal book I've ever written, and even though it takes place at an unspecified time in and unspecified place and features magic and alchemists and ghosts, it is a confessional." As you might guess from her description, Liesl & Po takes place during a dark time in Liesl's life and the world she lives in, literally. The a thick clouds that shroud the city has not let the sun shine through for over 1,728 days. But, Liesl & Po is not dark in the way that a fantasy novel that pits good against evil can be dark (although the wicked characters in Liesl & Po are very much so) but dark in the quiet, sorrowful way that grief sometimes takes on. Despite the seemingly serious emotions of grief, loss and loneliness, Oliver crafts a story reads a bit like a Dickensian tale with gently Victorian Gothic edges. And ultimately, Liesl & Po is a gently children's story, despite the presence of a step-mother who poisons soup and a Lady Premiere who is living on borrowed time and will stop at nothing to continue to do so. The charcoal illustrations by Kei Acedera are the perfect companion to Oliver's tale, illuminating the gentle faces of the children in the story and bringing to life the dark and sometimes dangerous setting.

When we first meet Liesl she is living in the attic where she has been imprisoned by her stepmother over the course of her father's long illness. The novel begins, "On the third night after the day her father died Liesl saw the ghost." It is not the ghost of her father but Po, neither boy or girl, and it's companion, Bundle, neither cat nor dog. Po has been attracted to Liesl by the glow from her small attic room as she spends her evenings drawing. Oliver does a wonderful job with the hazy entity that is Po. From the consistent use of the pronoun "it" rather than he/she to the descriptions of Po's appearance, which can be "a person-shaped shadow" or a flicker that is a "shape slowly asserting itself in the darkness as though the air was water" and something was moving under the surface. Although the ghosts are hazy, Oliver builds a solid, believable world for humans and specters. When the ghost of Liesl's father cries there are no tears, "just quivering little dark spots, like shadows, that pushed apart the atoms of Liesl's father's face, temporarily revealing the starry sky beyond. Ghosts, even the newest ones, just weren't held together very tightly." In turn, Po experiences the living world as being all "corners and boundaries and hard, sharp edges" as well as exhausting. When a stay in the living world lasts for too long memories gradually begin to return to the ghost and it feels as if a"large hand har reached out and pinched its Essence." Just as haunting and evocative are Oliver's descriptions of the Other Side. In one scene Po describes the Other Side as a place that is "expanding in all directions" and where there is a "sense of new people crossing over endlessly into its dark and twisting corridors." On the Other Side people lose there shapes quickly and "memories, too: They became blurry . . . They became part of darkness, of the vast spaces between stars. They became the invisible side of the moon." Oliver's writing is so eloquent and it is almost easier to feel this world than necessarily visualize it. The only other book I have read that has left such a lasting impression of life after death was Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass.

Enshrouded by this hazy other world is the very real world of Liesl, Will, the much abused alchemist's apprentice, and Mo, the hulking, slow thinking, sweet natured gate guard who carries his beloved cat, Lefty in a type of infant sling and who has experienced a profound loss of his own. The lives of these three characters, along with the guidance of Po and Bundle, intertwine when two boxes - one holding the ashes of Liesl's father, which she wants to return to her childhood home, and the other holding the ingredients for a intensely powerful spell that will make the alchemist a famous man and allow the Lady Premier to continue to be youthful, beautiful and powerful, are mixed up. Will and Liesl's paths finally cross and they journey together to the Red House, the idyllic home where Liesl spent her young life with her mother and father. The alchemist, the Lady Premiere and Liesl's hideous stepmother Augusta are in hot pursuit and a suspenseful climax brings on a powerful moment of catharsis that clears the clouds away. The release of the missing magic, which had been made up of "summer afternoons, from laughter and snowflakes," allows Liesl the chance to truly say goodbye to her father. With the sun shining again, Po and Bundle return to the other side and Liesl, Will, Mo and Lefty walk off into the sunshine, a new family forming from this disparate group.

Liesl & Po is a book that, while it can feel fuzzy at times, like a dream you are trying to remember after you wake up, is powerful and stays with you like that dream that you want so much to remember. I regret that Lauren Oliver had to experience a profound grief, but I am grateful that she is a gifted writer who can transform her emotions and experiences that we can all benefit from. Below is a short video of Oliver talking about where Liesl & Po grew from and what it means to her.


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