Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver
October 4, 2011; Harper Collins
Stop the Presses: Did you know that Lauren Oliver is a pseudonym? Her real name is Laura Schechter. Well, knock me over with a feather - I never expected that. Read this fabulous article in Business Week magazine about Lauren/Laura's business venture: "Teen-Lit Queen Takes Up Book Packaging."
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. (courtesy of Goodreads)
When you look back to your childhood, what classic stories do you treasure? A Little Princess? The Secret Garden? Matilda? The books that linger in our memories as adults all seem to have a certain magic. Maybe the book actually is about magic or maybe it captures the figurative magic of childhood that we wish we could bottle up as an elixir and drink. Liesl & Po is one of those magical books that children fifty years from now will love as much as children today.
Liesl & Po is a book of friendship and loneliness, of greed and generosity, of death and life. Liesl is mourning the death of her father and suffering alone in the attic, where her evil stepmother has locked her up. Alone that is until a ghost named Po shows up one night with his animal (maybe cat, maybe dog) named Bundle. Liesl needs Po to get in touch with her father. Po needs Liesl to reconnect with the living.
Further away, Will walks the streets alone at night on errands for his boss, the Alchemist. He may not be locked up in an attic, but he is every much as trapped as Liesl. We watch as all three lives collide and then travel together in an exciting and heartwarming adventure.
Lauren Oliver created three fabulous characters. Liesl seems the essence of naivete as she sits in the attic not questioning her stepmother's actions. But we soon learn that she is creative, stubborn, and brave as she pushes Po to find her father and eventually escapes the attic. Po is by far my favorite character. It is young yet it is not. It has the knowledge and arrogance of an eternal soul, but expresses itself in the manner of a petulant child. Will is clumsy, somewhat immature, and has the insecurity of an abused child. Yet he is also kind, loyal and goofy.
With the exception of the Guard and Liesl's father, the adults are villains. Rather cardboard villains driven by greed and insensitive to the lives of others. One could argue the flat characters is a flaw of the book. Instead, I would say that many classic children's novels, particularly those by Roald Dahl, have simple villains and are still beloved. Similarly, the plot all gets cleaned up into a nice and tidy box by the end. There are certainly twists along the way, but it stays within the traditional fairy tale story model. There are a few elements that could have been explored further, particularly the guard's sister, but these are less important side plots.
The highlight of Liesl & Po is the writing. The prose is itself magical. Her words evoke all the emotions the characters are trying to display. Sadness, anger, embarrassment, hope. And they flow so smoothly that I felt like I was flying throughout the novel. The book is wonderful read in silence but would be even better read aloud. I love Lauren's young adult novels, but I think she could easily stay in the middle grade realm forever. Lauren does a wonderful job of incorporating the themes of death, closure, and healing. The simple sweetness of the novel will stay with me for a long time.