Splendors and Glooms

by Laura Amy Schlitz
ages: 10+
First sentence: “The witch burned.”
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Ever since I finished this evocative work by Newbery-award winning author Laura Amy Schlitz, I’ve been trying to describe it. I’ve come up with “a slightly magic Dickensian-inspired story” (to which it was suggested that those who liked Claire Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest would probably like this one).  I’ve also described it as an “evil puppetmaster who mistreats two orphan children gets his due”, which is fairly accurate. And then there’s the “wizard vs. witch battle” angle as well.

It is a Dickensian story: set in late-19th century London, it’s the tale of two orphan children who are taken in by a Fagin-esque puppetmaster. The master, Grisini, has terrified the boy, Parsefall, into helping him pick pockets. But the girl, Liza Rose, is clueless about Grisini’s true nature. Then a series of things happen: they perform a show at Clara’s house, a wealthy little girl who lives in a house of Mourning (her four siblings died of cholera), and then she goes missing. Then, Grisini and the children decide to stand up to their wicked master, and an injured Grisini goes missing as well.

So far, so good right?

Actually, the thing that held this novel together (for me at least) was Schlitz’s writing. It’s incredibly descriptive (a random sentence: “A whiff of strong perfume rose to her nostrils: sweet musk roses and another, more metallic smell, reminiscent of something or someone she disliked.”) and flowing. It starts with the witch, and you wonder where the book is going to go, especially after you meet the orphans, but somehow Schlitz makes it all work together seamlessly. There isn’t a wasted page, and even though the action slows way down in the middle, while the orphans are trying to figure things out, it was enough to hold my interest.

Which gets to my real problem with this book: it’s one of those ones that Adults think Kids should like. As I have yet to find a way to describe it in any way that my girls (at least) would even be remotely interested in. The cover kind of spooks them (“Why is there two puppets being controlled by a giant hand?”) and when I try to describe the complex and intricate story, they lose patience about halfway through.

It’s a good story, just not one that I think kids are going to flock to. (Please, tell me if I’m wrong, and how to describe it so that I can get kids interested in it, because I’m really at a loss!)

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.) 

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