Liesl and Po – Lauren Oliver

Liesl and Po is the first of Lauren Oliver’s novels to be targeted at middle grade readers (age 8-12).  Following the sudden death of her best friend, Oliver wrote this book in a two month period as a type of confessional and a way of exploring her grief. 

The title immediately reminded me of Hansel and Gretel and it does have that ethereal, fairytale feel.  Liesl’s beloved father has just died and she is locked up in an attic room by her cruel stepmother, Augusta.  One night she is visited by Po, a ghost of indeterminate gender and his animal companion, Bundle (cat,dog, hamster?).  She enlists Po’s help to contact her father on the “other side”.   This is the story of Liesl’s quest to lay her father’s spirit to rest, a quest which is thwarted by other characters such as her stepmother, an evil alchemist and the redoutable Lady Premiere. 

The characters inhabit a grey and murky world, almost Dickensian at times although the time period and location are deliberately uncertain.  The wonderful grey, pencil illustrations complement this vague, dream-like world perfectly. 

All in all, a very charming tale but, unfortunately, the characters never really emerge from their initial pantomime like introduction.  Yes, they are beautifully drawn, but they lacked depth (both the ghosts and the living ones!)  and I would have loved to have discovered more about their back stories – an opportunity missed?

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