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The Economy as Villain in The Year of Shadows by Claire LeGrand (Book Review)

The economy went bust in 2008 and people everywhere are struggling.  The news keeps reminding us that more and more people are making less and less money, children are going hungry, and recovery has been slow.  But you wouldn’t know it from a lot of the books being written for middle grade and teen readers; there it seems to be business as usual. In fact, I rarely read about teens and their families struggling financially in the teen lit I read, unless it is a dystopian or post-apocalyptic book, which is an entirely different deal.  If anything, there seems to be a flood of titles where teens are actually being raised in affluent homes with gated communities or being sent to boarding schools.  See Winger by Andrew Smith and When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney for just a few examples (both good books).  Don’t get me wrong, there are teens growing up in wealthy families and they deserve to see themselves in ya lit, but is the literature representative of the reality?  Of course you could also ask the question, do teens struggling with a life of poverty want to be reminded of their poverty in the books that they read or do they want to escape reality for a little while?  An equally interesting question.

And then I came across The Year of Shadows by Claire LeGrand.  I am, in fact, a LeGrand fan.  Her debut work The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls has a great eerie, gothic vibe to it that just creeps you out (a great October read by the way).  And it seemed clear from the title and cover that The Year of Shadows promised more of the same.  It did not disappoint.

The Year of Shadows is the story of Olivia, whose mom has left her without a goodbye or a forwarding address.  Her father is a musical conductor of the local failing symphony and in a last ditch ever to save the concert hall, he moves Olivia and her Nonnie (grandmother) backstage.  Gone is their lovely house full of warm family memories, now they are sleeping on cots in a concert hall with no shower and eating of food prepared on a camp stove.  It soon becomes clear that the concert hall is full of shadows, much like Olivia’s life itself is, but together they might just find a way out of the darkness and into the light, but not into too much light because this is, after all, a gothic story.

The Year of Shadows is a delightfully depressing tale; it tells a beautiful story about a resourceful young girl who is struggling with a very real darkness – both the darkness in her life and the darkness inside her heart as she wrestles with the emotions that come from literally losing everything.  It’s definitely more Tim Burton than Disney, but still manages to end on a hopeful note.

There are many great things about this book:

1) Olivia herself is a dynamic girl with an artistic soul that burns with a variety of complex and fiery emotions.

2) There is what has to be the best cat ever since the Cheshire cat in this book that goes by the name of Igor, that Olivia has the most fun conversations with.

Igor: “When will you stop talking so I can go back to sleep” (p. 78)

3) Olivia explores what it means to be a friend and a family with a delightful cast of characters, many of whom happen to be ghosts. (This is the only thing I struggled with as a reader of this book, I have apparently watched too many episodes of The Ghost Whisperer in syndication and sometimes couldn’t help comparing the two.)  All of the relationships in this book are interesting, the supporting characters developed, and I loved seeing everyone wrestle with their pasts.

4) There is a love and celebration of the arts, something that can often get lost in our STEM focused culture. 

5) LeGrand has a tremendous talent for writing creating a rich atmosphere, beautiful sentences, and characters that grow and experience a wide range of  emotions.

But my very favorite thing is how LeGrand chooses not only to let the economy be realistically portrayed in this story, but how she personifies it in a way that helps us better understand the world our kids are living in today.  In fact, Olivia always refers to it as “The Economy”, making it clear that it is a real and important thing in her life.  It is clearly a villain, one of the causes of her many woes.  She doesn’t fully understand what it means, what its implications are (as most adults don’t), but she understands that it is important and, in her view, bad.  Because of The Economy she is living in a place that is not a home and fears that soon her home will be a cardboard box under a bridge.  She shops at the local charity store.  And she is mortified when she fills in all of the pages of our sketch book and is forced to draw on discarded napkins and old sheets of paper.  The effects on The Economy in the life of Olivia are real and visceral and immediate, just as it is in the lives of many of our kids.  By recognizing the villainy of The Economy in the life of Olivia and giving it this presence and voice, LeGrand is speaking to the hearts of every one of those children out there who are wondering whether there will be dinner on the table tonight or if they will soon be forced to live in a cardboard box somewhere.  This fear has a presence, a weightiness to it, that can not be ignored and LeGrand gives it the voice that it deserves.  Many kids will read this book and be thankful to know that they are not alone and that there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.

The Year of Shadows is one of my favorite MG titles of 2013.  It is an entertaining ghost story that resonates with some rich undertones about family, forgiveness and survival.  The overall vibe is melancholy (yet occasionally hopeful) and Gothic. Enter into The Year of Shadows with Olivia, you won’t be disappointed.  Fair warning, I cried.  4.5 stars out of 5.


  1. This book sounds wonderful and since I loved Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, I can't wait to read this one!

  2. I really liked it a lot, hope that you do too. Karen/TLT

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