Claire Legrand is carving a name for herself in the genre of creepy MG literature. She is a pro at writing stories with appeal to children and a Gothic horror feel to them. Her latest novel, The Year of Shadows, is a perfect example of this. My split reader personalities had different responses to this book. All of them loved it, but with a qualification (a qualification you can completely ignore if you don't have a child in the intended age group).
Olivia Stellatella is having a rough year.
mother left, her neglectful father -- the maestro of a failing
orchestra -- has moved her and her grandmother into his dark,
broken-down concert hall to save money, and her only friend is Igor, an
ornery stray cat.
Just when she thinks life couldn’t get any
weirder, she meets four ghosts who haunt the hall. They need Olivia’s
help -- if the hall is torn down, they’ll be stuck as ghosts forever,
never able to move on.
Olivia has to do the impossible for her
shadowy new friends: Save the concert hall. But helping the dead has
powerful consequences for the living . . . and soon it’s not just the
concert hall that needs saving.
Book Lover Me Reacts:
Olivia is the best, topped in this story only by the character of Igor (the cat). She is gloomy. She is lonely. She is angry. She is desperately trying to be nothing. If she is nothing then she doesn't matter to anyone and no one can matter to her. Unfortunately for her plans of eternal solitude there are others who are not going to allow her to continue down that road. The ghosts who need her help and Henry, the boy usher at the Hall, are going to crack through her shell. This is a good thing for Olivia even if she does fight it with all her might. I love how Legrand built her character and opened her up through the story. She grows in inner and outer strength. Henry is a wonderful contrast to her. He's the well behaved and studious one, the voice of caution. (And thank you Ms. Legrand for reversing the gender stereotypes so often used in MG fantasy there.) I also thoroughly enjoyed the ghosts and their stories.
The setting is perfectly eerie and described so well. As a reader you feel as though you are in the dilapidated Hall. You can smell the dust and feel the cold. The story told here about the ghosts who can't move on until they find their anchors as so many layers. It is nothing short of genius how Legrand wove all these strands together into a whole. Olivia is helping them to find their anchors so they can "move on" and this shows so clearly, with no need of explanation, how desperately she needs an anchor herself. The ghosts are wonderful, and the shades who are trying to pull them into Limbo exactly the right sort of creepy. Limbo itself is a perfectly dreadful place and, again, Legrand's talented descriptive powers make you feel as though you are there. I was slightly disappointed about how Olivia began to think of the shades at the close of the book. I felt like this didn't gel at all with the picture of them we had until that point. I would have preferred if she had not tried to make them sympathetic, though I can see why she felt she had to.
This is a splendid book, one that kept me engrossed from beginning to end. I had dreams inspired by this book and there are few books with the power to do that to me.
Teacher Me Reacts:
If you have this book in your classroom library or school library it will pretty much book talk itself. Look at the cover. Hold it up and say the word "ghosts" and watch it fly it off the shelves even faster. Even better, it is well written, but with a style that will keep reluctant readers engaged to the end. And there are wonderful illustrations. I would caution you to know your students before recommending it though. Know their family situations and their emotional maturity level. Because...
Mother Me Reacts:
I can't let my daughter read this book. She would end up a weeping puddle in my bed every night for goodness knows how long as a result. Not because of the ghosts, or even the shades, but because this book explores some pretty grim themes of death and depression I know she can't handle yet. I have a child who is particularly sensitive to both those subjects, and this book would do her in. I encourage any parent who has such a child, particularly one who fears losing you (in any way) to read this first or with your child.
Content Note: Religious families who have very specific views of what life after death is like may have issues with the ideas presented in this book.
I read a galley received from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via Edelweiss. The Year of Shadows is available for purchase on August 27.