There is a lot going on in Claire Legrand's upcoming middle grade fantasy, The Year of Shadows. There is family dysfunction, social ostracism, and bullying. There is also reluctant friendship, and a bit of social activism. And there are ghosts. Lots of ghosts. There are even tiny hints of time travel and dystopia, and a possible talking cat. But let's start at the beginning.
Olivia Stellatella's mother has left. Her distant father, whom she calls the Maestro, pours all of his energy into his work as the conductor for their unnamed city's orchestra. As the story begins, Olivia, her father, and her frail grandmother, Nonnie, move into the dilapidated concert hall to save money. Ashamed of her mother's abandonment, and of having to live in Emerson Hall and buy her clothes from a charity store, Olivia pushes just about everyone away. This includes the seemingly perfect Henry, who is in her class at school and volunteers as an usher at the hall. Things change, however, when Olivia and Henry witness several ghosts, as well as something even more scary.
I love Olivia. The cover image (by Karl Kwasny) perfectly captures her defensive, truculent attitude. She is prickly, hopeless in school, and deeply furious with her father. But she also takes care of Nonnie, and eventually reveals a fierce loyalty to her few friends (not all of whom are human). Even though she hates living in the hall, she does what she can to make her bedroom (an empty storage room shared with Nonnie) homey. She is obsessed with drawing, and befriends a stray cat, whom she imagines (or not) communicates with her. As revealed throughout the book, she always does what is necessary, even when it's hard. Here's a snippet:
"I grabbed my umbrella from under my bed and tucked it into the sheets with me. If ghosts did come after me, it probably wouldn't do much good. But it made me feel better to have it, to hold it tight and pretend like it made me safer.
Sometimes you have to lie to yourself like that. Sometimes that's how you get through things." (Chapter 5)
She has a delightfully wry sense of humor:
I crawled out of bed around lunchtime on Thanksgiving Day, feeling like ... well, I would say death, but that seems like the kind of thing I couldn't say, considering." (Chapter 26)
The relationship between Olivia and Henry is also very well done. He seems to "get" her right away, though it takes her quite some time to fully understand him. This is far from the insta-friendship that is common in middle grade fiction. They both have to work at it - they have mis-steps and roadblocks. But they ultimately come through for one another. I also liked that Legrand doesn't take the easy road in terms of Olivia's relationship with her father.
The tone of The Year of Shadows is also well-represented by the cover. Despite a few moments of lightness (Olivia's interactions with the cat are hilarious), the overall feel of the book is dark, and a bit sad. Like this:
"I didn't think mothers could fall out of love with their children. That's what I wanted to say to him. But I couldn't speak. I felt hopeless." (Chapter 21)
There's a particularly vivid scene near the end of the book that might be a bit scary for the youngest readers. However, for the most part, the worst things that happen are removed from the reader in some way. This should keep the book accessible to younger readers.
I found the plotting in The Year of Shadows to be a little slow-paced, particularly early in the book, though things picked up considerably towards the end. I think this was because Legrand packs so much personal drama in with the ghost story. It takes a while to lay all of that groundwork. And despite all of the fantasy elements, this is a character-driven story.
I think that The Year of Shadows will work best for middle grade readers who enjoy meaty fantasy novels, but prefer them set in the real world. Olivia Stellatella is a memorable character, and one with a great name to boot. Because of the length of the book, and the school dynamics, I think it will work well for middle schoolers as well as for strong elementary school readers.
The Year of Shadows is no frothy fantasy summer read. It's a bit sad, and a bit scary. But it has strong characters with realistic relationship, set against an intriguing ghostly backdrop. I think it will be a great back to school read.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (@SimonKids)
Publication Date: August 27, 2013
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
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