August 27, 2013
Simon & Schuster
Middle grade books always get to me. Why? Because childhood and innocence are sacred to me and when injustices are done to either of these two precious things, it’s difficult to accept.
Claire Legrand’s The Year of Shadows is not a walk in the park. It is not an action adventure that you can read on and off for a few giggles. This is a story of loss. Many losses. Olivia and her Nonnie and her maestro father have moved into the music hall because money is tight and they’ve had to sell their belongings. This is, of course, after Olivia’s mother left them about a year ago, having just given up on their life changing for the better. Olivia’s life is hard — practically homeless, lost cause of a father, senile grandmother, absentee mother, friendless, weird…all at 12 years old. And because of this, Olivia is a little punk. She’s abrasive, stone-cold, and desperately lonely. All she really wants are things to go right, and I feel that that was one of the things that kept gently snagging at me, gripping me. Such a simple wish.
I found these supporting characters thoroughly refreshing. Henry is one of the “populars” but for once (in any book I’ve read), he’s popular for a good reason. Not because he’s good-looking or rich but because he’s smart, talented, and not afraid to make decisions for himself. And Joan, who is pretty and rich, who, Olivia notes, would’ve been popular if she chose; except Joan chooses to be true to herself and her values and sod the student body if they think she’s a nut job. Applause! One complaint — not enough of either.
As I mentioned, this book deals with some intense subject matter. The premise is that of a girl who meets ghosts who seek her help in “moving on”. This new representation of life and death, heaven, hell, and limbo is new to me. There is a twist in the legend of spirits being held back because of anchors keeping them tied yet powerless to the world of the living. It involves shadows and shades and portals to another dimension.
But the ghosts and their stories. Of Tillie and Jax, and Mr. Worthington. Each of these individual stories is enough to threaten my tear ducts. They highlight suffering through actual dangerous and saddening moments in history. They were brief but Legrand’s expert writing goes straight through the flesh, the bones, and the heart. Perhaps a little more back story would be helpful for the younger readers who might not catch the signs as easily as an adult already familiar with the topic, but, nevertheless, it was effective.
And that would probably be my only real criticism. This is very clearly a middle grade book written with an adult audience heavily weighing in the mind, which isn’t a bad thing. I say this because near the end, Olivia begins to deal with the concept of forgiveness, and while forgiveness isn’t necessarily a difficult idea to comprehend, the context in which it manifests is arguably mature. I just hope the children who pick this up — which I’m sure they will because it’s a great title and an awesome cover — will have just as a fulfilling experience as an adult would undoubtedly have. Good, though. Real good.