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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.

Book Review (and TPIB): The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand

I recently went to a local(ish) Barnes and Noble store for a book signing by Claire Legrand.  Yes, I had not yet actually read the book, but it sounded interesting.  Poor Claire, I had to take my kids – one is 10 and one is 3.  That night the two girls walked out with signed copies of The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls and the tween and I began to read.  We read parts of it out loud together that first night, but I had to stay up and finish reading it that night because it was that good.  The tween was definitely interested in the book and took it for a walk with us the next night and tried to walk and read at the same time.  I am not going to lie, this is not always a good idea.

As for The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, this is a great MG read with a gothic feel to it.  Fans of Coraline by Neil Gaiman will love it. 

Our story takes place in a small town where the Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls resides.  Here we meet young Victoria, a fesity, perfectionist heroine who is about to have her socks rocked as she learns that things are not always what they seem and perfectionism is not always the best way to go.

Rule 1: No one wants to hear you sing, Or talk or scream or anything.

Seriously creepy stuff happens in the Cavendish Home.  Children disappear and sometimes – if they return – they come back different.  Victoria becomes interested when her sort of best friend Lawrence disappears and it turns out she does indeed care, much to her surprise.  There is a small hint of The Stepford Wives here and a play on the idea that adults are always trying to turn kids into perfect little angels.  But if you have or work with kids, you know that this is not naturally going to occur, so maybe there is a small need for something supernatural to intervene.  Inside the Cavendish home there are certainly some supernatural things happening, and they are spectacularly creepy (and fun).  There is this reveal that will make you gasp – out loud! There are all kinds of fun, snarky things I can say here about it but I don’t want to spoil you so you’ll just have to trust that I have some good zingers here.  If you are looking for safe yet creepy reads for your MG students, I highly recommend The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand.  Claire Legrand captures a great voice in Victoria and the writing style is fun, engaging and whimsical while still making you afraid to turn out the light at night.  4.5 out of 5 stars, a new terrifying classic for those tweens looking for a haunting/chilling/scary read.  They will not be disappointed.  Important note: readers of all ages will love this new haunting classic.  Yeah, I declared it a new classic – I went there.

 Rule 6: Zip your lips and duck your head; Odd little children wind up dead.

Tween take: Dark, twisted and awesome!

And because November 1st is Lawrence’s birthday, I offer these programming ideas to do with a class or book discussion group to go along with this title.  Say Happy Birthday to Lawrence with the creepiest birthday party ever.  PS: tomorrow is my birthday.

Creepy Crawlies: roach crafts!

First you should know that I stole this idea from Claire herself.  In fact, her stepsister was kind enough to give me her bug pin (thanks Claire’s stepsister!).  Basically, there is a running theme of these roach like bugs running throughout the book which means – Roach Crafts!! Bet you never thought you would get to say that.  You can buy these very lifelike looking roach bugs and hot glue them to lapel pins, barrettes and more.  I wanted to take the one out of Claire’s stepsisters hair, but then it would have left her with one of those funny hair dents – and it would made me look creepier then Miss Cavendish, which is never good.  Your tweens will love this craft.

Hex Bugs/Nano Bugs
I am always looking for a reason to use these nano/hex bugs in programming.  Your tweens can used recycle goods (think boxes, etc.) to create “battlegrounds” and have some hex bug battles.  The only downside to these bugs are cost, but you can definitely use some as giveaways at the end of the program.

Exquisite Corpse
It’s been a while since I mentioned the Exquisite Corpse, but it definitely fits here.  Inside the home there are these creatures that serve as servants, who they are is part of the twisted fun, but they are described as being quite distorted.  In fact, throughout the book there are some illustrations which add some definite charm – and chill – to Cavendish Home which should not go unnoticed.  Basically, the exquisite corpse is an art activity that will allow your participants to create their own versions of these creatures.  You take a large piece of paper – super large – and fold it into thirds.  Or take regular sheets of paper and you will eventually tape them together.  Divide your participants into teams of 3; one person will draw a head, one a torso, and one the bottom portion of their creature.  The trick is that none knows what the other is drawing so when you put the 3 pieces together to create a whole creature they are usually dark and twisty – just like this book.

Creepy House Collage
Looking for something to do with all those discarded magazines?  Get your tweens to make their own creepy/haunted houses using the tried and true method of collage.  Low cost but high fun.  What would the Cavendish Home look like if it was designed specifically to scare them?  Maybe instead of roaches there would be spiders or clowns.  I’m not saying that’s what would be in my creepy house collage, it’s just a possibility is all.  I mean, I hear people are afraid of these things.

The Most Disturbing Puppet Show Ever
You can use popsicle sticks or dowel rods, string, and again recycled things like cans, etc. to make your own marionettes.  Marionettes seem like too much work, even paper bag puppets will do in a pinch, or bust out your puppet collection.  Then have your tweens do some Reader’s Theater and puppet shows using scenes from Cavendish Home.  Here is a make your own marionette tutorial. And here are some other puppet ideas.  PS, this activity will make more sense AFTER you read the book.

Be sure to hand out butterscotch candies at your program! And have a pie eating contest.

Rule 17: Brother, sister, better beware! Act up and vanish into thin air.

If your readers like The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand, they may also like:
Colarine by Neil Gaiman
Matilda by Roald Dahl
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Jade Green, a ghost story by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
The Game of Sunken Places by M. T. Anderson
Darkside by Tom Becker
House of Stairs by William Sleator (older)
The Thief of Always by Cliver Barker (older)
Full Tilt by Neal Shusterman (older)
The Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby (older)
Treasure Box by Orson Scott Card (definitely ADULT)