Sunday, February 19, 2012

Creepy Middle Reader

Liesl & Po
How dark can a middle reader book go? If you consider the Grimm Brother's fairy tales, they can be awfully grim (yeah, yeah, bad pun attempted!). In fact, I have often bought these classic fairy tales for baby showers, thinking I was doing a nice thing. After reading more and more of them this year, I realize I have been traumatizing all the young children in my family! So when I started reading Liesl and Po, by Lauren Oliver, I was surprised by some of the darkness, but thrilled by the charming story underneath.

Liesl hasn't left the attic since her father's death. Her stepmother makes her stay there to keep her safe. Safe from what, Liesl doesn't know. Will is the orphaned assistant of a mean and nasty alchemist. His only highlight in running the alchemist's errands throughout the middle of the night is seeing the girl in the window of the attic. That girl is Liesl. She doesn't know he is out there, but he can't stop thinking about her. He thinks about her so much that he accidentally takes the wrong box to the Lady Premiere. He is supposed to bring her a box of the darkest and strongest magic the alchemist has every made, the same magic that has taken away the sun for over 1700 days, but instead he grabs the box of Liesl's father's ashes. The box of magic is inadvertently delivered to Liesl's stepmom instead of the ashes. 

When Po, a ghost boy, comes to visit Liesl in the attic, he helps her connect to her father. There she learns her father wants his ashes brought to their old house where her mother is buried so he can finally cross over and be at peace. Po helps Liesl escape the attic so he can get her to the old house. Along the way, a series of mistakes, switches, misunderstandings, and plain old silliness leads to an adventure where Will, Po, and Liesl try to put her father to rest while everyone else in the countryside is out looking for them. What no one knows is that the magic box might be more powerful than any of them could imagine, but love is more powerful.

Some people might disagree, but I think you can have some darkness to a middle reader, especially if there is an ending where everything works out for the better. I think the Grimm's fairy tales are too dark even for my 30 year old self, of course! But this book had just enough dark and just enough softness to balance it out. You want Will and Liesl to make it to their destination, but all the mix-ups and silliness throughout the story keeps you hanging on until the last page thinking, "What could possibly happen NOW?!" I admit the story was a little hard to get into at first, and some key details weren't revealed until 1/3 of the book had passed. That, sadly, might make it too hard for the reader, especially a younger reader, to get into the book, at which point they would miss this exciting little gem!

As a middle reader, there isn't any sexual content, but there is some death and murder and Liesl is certainly abused by her stepmother. Nothing is too graphic or overdone, so the happy coincidences will balance those out fairly well. It is one of those fun stories where the circumstances change just by chance over and over again, helping the main characters out in ways they couldn't possibly know. It is a great way to make the reader feel most connected to the story- they know more than the characters do! I think this is a fun little ghost story, where the ghosts aren't what you should be afraid of!

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