Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver

You can never say no to a proof that comes through the post from the lovely people at Hodder & Stoaughton, and one that comes with absolutely STUNNING cut out shadow puppet theatre. Seriously, more publishers should send me adorable free stuff, makes me do the shiny happy dance… And the book is even more outstanding.

Liesl & Po's Wonderful UK Cover.

Set in an alternate universe with a wonderful fantasy-come-Victorian atmosphere, Liesl & Po is the tale of two very lonely children in a grey and dark world, two ghosts desperate to make contact with the living, and how tiny faults and mistakes can lead to brilliant adventures and lasting friendships. Liesl lives the classic Cinderella life; her father has died, poisoned by her wicked stepmother who keeps Liesl locked away in the attic, where she has nothing to do but draw what she sees from her window. One night, her sadness attracts the attention of the ghost Po and his ghost pet Bundle. Liesl and Po hatch a plan to break her out, so that she may spread her father’s ashes over the willow tree at her childhood home, so that can finally be at rest. Also living in the city is Will, the assistant to an ambitious and deeply negligent Alchemist, who berates and attacks Will verbally and emotionally on a daily basis. The only joy he gets is from seeing a beautiful girl in her attic window during his nightly errands. Whilst making a delivery for the Alchemist, Will accidentally switches the most powerful magic in the world with the ashes of Liesl’s late father. Furious, the Alchemist, and the intended customer attempt to punish Will for his mistake and he flees. Both Liesl and Will’s paths soon cross as they make their way through an epic journey, neither realising that their current predicament or futures are so linked over Will’s mistake. Struggling with people pursuing them, and with the sour attitude of a very confused and lonely ghost, the four take trains and feet across the dark grey world, where the sun has not shone in months, on a mission of escape, freedom and a search for happier lives. On this journey, wonderful friendships that will last lives are formed, and an understanding of the magic of life and the universe is fully understood.

To say Liesl & Po is a beautiful story is doing it an injustice. It is Ineffable in it’s beauty, to use Liesl’s favourite word. Lauren Oliver begins the book with a short paragraph on the loss of a dear friend that prompted her to pen the story, and with this in mind whilst reading it, the book takes on a whole extra layer of touching honesty and painful truth. The first thing I need to talk about is the illustrations in Liesl & Po; beautifully simple and hauntingly captivating images that pull in the book’s sense of bleak depression and of simple innocence and above all hope. Liesl’s character is the true definition of innocence, and her loss is so painfully well written that it’s impossible not to empathize with her, and her hope is a shining light throughout the novel, stirring all characters that she meets, and inspiring the usually despondent Po to remember how to feel again. Po is a fantastic character, pulling in a wonderful idea that the longer a ghost has been living (or perhaps that should be residing?) on the Other Side, without moving on, they gradually become blurry, both physically and mentally. Po no longer resembles a boy or a girl, and cannot remember which it once was (and Bundle resembles both a cat and a dog). Po’s rediscovery of emotion and of the relationships that exist in the land of the living is a sweet and touching analysis of young friendship, and how children learn to accept the differences in other people, their emotions and thought processes. Po often has to realise that Liesl and Will can’t understand things from the perspective of the ghost, and this is an important concept for children to come to terms with. Will is the classic lost and confused young man, brimming with emotions he can’t quite control and certainly doesn’t understand them, and his sweet and well meaning efforts to comfort Liesl, whom he is incredibly infatuated with are fantastic to read. His clumsy side is tempered by his desire to do good in the world (something I can relate too, being a bit of a klutz myself…), which makes him a loveable and instantly allows readers to relate to him. This combination of hope, discovery and a drive to do good makes for a touching adventure and an overwhelming friendship, with three unique characters who I quickly rooted for a fell in love with. The support cast is also fantastic, with the dark and unrelenting Alchemist as a superb antagonist, perfectly human and still utterly despicable, his customer the Lady Première is a woman of mysterious past and great depths, and Liesl’s stepmother is a fairytale come true, malicious, ambitious and excellently portrayed as a hideous black widow. Mo, however, the Lady Première’s guard, steals the book as the best character. Following Will out of the desire to protect the young boy, who he thinks will be cold without a hat, Mo is described as lacking in brains, but with a heart big enough to care for everyone he meets, and it is this heart which brings the book its tear-inducing ending as the sweetness of the character helps break through the dreary bleakness of the books world, and shows us that there is always light at the end of the tunnel.

Lisel & Po is a beautiful book. One more time to get the point home. A superb read for children and adults alike, and I think it would be one to use for explaining loss to children in the 8-12 age range, and helping them come to terms with death. It shows that no matter how hard things are now, they can always get better.

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