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Monday, October 24, 2011

Friendly Ghosts: New Books — Liesl & Po

Courtesy of HarperCollins
Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver

There’s a very comfortable old-fashioned fairy tale feel to Liesl & Po. Maybe it’s the wicked stepmother. Maybe it’s the Dickensian-style orphans. Or even just the name, “Liesl.” But mostly I credit Lauren Oliver’s soft, lyrical prose. The author does a wonderful job of simultaneously instilling readers with a sense of awe and a bad case of the creeps. It’s rather Spielbergian in that way.

Liesl is a little girl who lives imprisoned in a tiny attic room (with a name like Liesl, where else could she live, really?) and is visited one night by a ghost. That spirit, Po, is one of the more interesting supernatural characters I’ve come across in a long time. Po hasn’t come to haunt anybody; in fact, the ghost isn’t even quite sure why it (gender is unimportant in the afterlife) decided to pop in on Liesl. But this curious spirit is immediately intrigued by the girl's forwardness and lack of fear. Po decides to help Liesl escape. This friendship between a child with no life and a child with no life only becomes more fascinating as the story takes on a kids-on-the-run vibe.

There’s a lot more going on plotwise, too: Lookalike jewel boxes get mixed up, another runaway orphan enters the picture, a greedy alchemist whips up a magical fountain of youth, a musclebound guard carries a cat in a baby sling. The action flows at a smooth pace, but the book always manages to find the time for otherworldly atmosphere. And there’s something about illustrator Kei Acedera’s sketches of Po that I find exceptionally eerie: The ghost is a barely-there shadow with dark, hollow eyes — reminiscent of so many “real” ghost photos you used to see in books with titles like Quandaries of the Unknowable. But with all of its talk of death and loss, Liesl & Po is, in the end, a book about hope and new beginnings.

Best for: Readers who prefer goosebumps over screams; classic folk tale aficionados; anyone who has longed to see Casper in a dramatic role; fans of the name Liesl.

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