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Liesl & Po
by Lauren Oliver
Liesl’s cruel stepmother keeps her locked away in an attic. With nothing to do, Liesl spends her time looking out a tiny window and drawing. One lonely night, a ghost named Po appears from the Other Side. Both Liesl and Po are less lonely when they are together. When Liesl’s father dies, she is determined to take his ashes to a special place. With Po’s help, Liesl is able to escape and the two embark on a dangerous adventure to bury her father.
The alchemist’s apprentice, Will, leads a miserable life. His one joy is to look at the small girl in the attic window. Late one night, Will accidentally mixes up a major delivery. Now, the person who ordered the most powerful magic in the world will stop at nothing to get her potion that Will failed to send to her.
The lives of the children—Will, Leisl, and Po—intersect as they help each other avoid the adults who would like to capture them.
Lauren Oliver writes a beautiful story that shows the power of friendship. Although Liesl & Po is age-appropriate, the story shows a frightening version of the Other Side—a place where the dead lose their shape and their memories. Another aspect that may frighten younger readers is the terrible actions of the adults in the story. The alchemist verbally abuses Will. Liesl’s stepmother plots the murder of Liesl’s father and attempts to kill Liesl. The other adults (except one) in the story are just as vile. However, the story ends in a satisfying way, leaving the reader with hope.
- One of the alchemist’s apprentices was accidentally turned into a mouse, “just as the alchemist’s scrawny, always hungry tabby cat had come swishing in through the cat door.”
- Augusta wants to kill her husband and stepdaughter, but she is afraid to kill both at the same time. Therefore, she uses poison to kill her husband because “the slow death of a middle-aged man is hardly likely to be attributed to poison, especially when the poison is administered teaspoon by teaspoon, a bit in the soup every day, over the course of a year.”
- Will overhears a conversation when a factory worker says, “The problem is the boys. We’re running through ‘em! We’re running out! Boys are losing limbs, fingers, toes. One of the boys had his head chopped off last month.”
- Someone tries to grab Liesl. “During her frantic struggles against the Lady Premiere, she had smacked her head against the door jam and gone as limp as a lettuce leaf.” Lady Premiere then locks Liesl in a room.
- Augusta tries to feed Liesl soup that she has poisoned. When Liesl refuses to eat it, “Augusta, enraged, sprang to her feet. She grabbed Liesl by the shoulders and shook her . . . Augusta shook Liesl so hard that her teeth knocked together.” Augusta then tells Liesl she can eat the soup and die slowly or she can starve to death.
- Two siblings are seen “hopping and twisting and slapping each other.”
Drugs and Alcohol
- Po meets a ghost who died in a bar brawl.
- Augusta kills her husband with poison.
- Augusta says that her maid was, “dropped on her head quite frequently as a baby. Her mother was a hopeless drunk.”
- An innkeeper thinks about a time when she served her customers “weak wine.”
- Po is a ghost who explains how death works. Some people go “straight on,” and others go to the Other Side. The Other Side is “vast and filled with ghosts.” When new people cross over to the “dark and twisting corridors,” people lose their shape and memories. When people first get to the Other Side, “they become a part of darkness, of the vast spaces between starts.”
- When people die, they blend and become part of the Everything. “The ghost reminded itself that losing form was natural, and good, and the way things were in the universe.”
- Po takes Liesl to the Other Side. “. . . She was aware of the sensation of Po inside her, urging her forward, like suddenly feeling a division down your middle and being two people . . .” Po leads Liesl through the Other Side, and then opens a passage so Liesl can go back to the living world.
- When people first get to the Other Side they are often confused because they do not understand where they are. “All those new ghosts: All they wanted was to go back to the Living Side.” In order to help Liesl, Po tells the new ghost to follow him because the path would lead them home. Instead, they go to the Living World. “Because they were very new ghosts, they had not started to blend yet, and so were quite visible. . . Some had holes in their faces, or were missing arms or legs, where their physical selves had begun to dissipate and merge with the rest of the universe.”
- Liesl’s father returns from the Other Side and accuses his wife, Augusta, of killing him. Augusta then reveals that the alchemist gave her “Pernicious Poison: Dead as a Doorknob, or Your Money Back.”
- After helping Liesl, Po and Bundle appear as solid shapes. “They were golden—they’d been dipped in gold—no—they were made of gold. And then the golden Po-shape turned into tan brown arms and shoulders, a ring of curly yellow hair, and a laughing smile. . . ” Then he disappeared “to Beyond.”
- Will works for an alchemist who makes spells. For one spell, Will “spent the whole day grinding up cow eyes, and measuring the blood of lizards into different-sized vials . . .”
- The alchemist can make spells that “turned frogs into goats and goats into mugs of tea. He made people grow wings or third legs. Recently he had mastered a tincture that would make a person disappear entirely.”