Liesl & Po
By Lauren Oliver
Hardcover, 307 pages
Liesl has been locked away in the attic by her stepmother since her father’s death. She is lonely but it gets harder and harder to remember life before the attic, she’s been up there so long. Then one night a strange shadow appears – a ghost, Po, who is inexplicably drawn to her side and who enjoys the artwork she makes by candlelight. What starts out as a request from Liesl to for Po to bring a message to her deceased father, takes Liesl and Po on the adventure of their lives.
Liesl & Po has been on my radar since Richard over at Books and Bullshit recommended it (if you enjoy middle grade recs, foul language and lots of snark, you’ll probably enjoy his channel – he’s one of the few Booktubers I subscribe to.) I was very happy to find it while book shopping on vacation in Arizona – in brand new condition for only a few bucks!
First, let me say, I love the design of this book! The jacket is gorgeous and I was happy to find the cover beneath is fully illustrated in color as well – I won’t be covering this book with my library plastic, as I want to be able to see both designs. There are also very detailed illustrations throughout the book, some taking up two-page spreads (keep an eye out for my Judging post this Friday) and I just think it’s fantastic. I don’t have enough complimentary adjectives to describe this book.
Ok, now on to the story. Liesl is trapped by her ugly, evil stepmother (total trope, but I didn’t mind so much) until she meets a genderless ghost, Po and its strange cat-or-maybe-dog pet, Bundle. Po has crossed over from the Other Side out of curiosity and continues to come back because of its budding friendship with Liesl. Liesl asks for news of her father and Po explains that it may not be able to find him, as not all ghosts stay on the Other Side and it’s a very busy place. But Po attempts the message anyway, which sets them off on their adventure to bring Liesl’s father peace.
It was hard for me to think of Po as an “it” – it’s natural to want to classify a character as what we know, either male or female (or even transgender) and so mentally I kept referring to Po as he, even though I was reading “it”. Bundle was easier to handle, as I just made up a sort of creature in my mind, though I also thought of it as male. I’d be curious to hear if a younger reader struggled to classify Po the way I did; perhaps someone less used to doing it would find it easier to imagine the character as truly genderless.
I enjoyed this aspect of Po however, especially with the way Oliver has it describe itself in the book when Liesl poses the question of whether it is a boy or girl and when it replies with neither she says it must be one or the other:
“I don’t have to be anything. I am what I am and that’s all. Things are different on the Other Side, you know. Things are…blurrier.”
I also enjoyed the way Oliver handled the Other Side – a bustling, shadowy place with a mixture of less defined ghosts like Po and others who look much like their old selves when they first cross over. Po seems to enjoy the Other Side, with no intention of passing to Beyond, yet does not make either choosing to stay or go seem like a bad decision.
The characters in this book were all fairly compelling, especially Liesl and I devoured this book in a day. The plot had plenty of action, a whole lot of darkness and just a touch of nonsense – which is how I prefer my middle grade. The ending was sad but satisfying and overall I think Oliver handles the subject of death and what might come after very well. It is especially touching to read the afterward where Oliver provides insight on why she wrote this book.
I highly recommend this book for all lovers of dark middle grade with a healthy dose of feeling.
You can visit Oliver’s website, Tweet at her, follow her Tumblr and even watch her videos on YouTube!