About the book
Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver is a fairy tale about an orphaned girl named Liesl and a ghost named Po on a mission to help Liesl’s father’s soul find rest. Along the way they are joined by Will, a runaway alchemist’s apprentice who accidentally lost “The Greatest Magic in the World.” Together, they navigate a cold, sunless world while being chased by powerful people who mean them harm. But hope, love and friendship sustain them, and it’s because of their perilous journey that sunlight comes back to the world.
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“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, [and]who had ever been alive.”
That was a quote from the author James Baldwin on reading. Reading is one of the best things we can do in our day because it keeps us connected to each other and reminds us that we’re not alone in our struggles. So in each episode of the We Should All Be Bookworms Podcast, we build our reading habit by taking a quick look at a page-turning, magnetic, universally appealing book that once you start reading, you won’t want to put down. I’m your host, Mykella, a budding novelist and a bonafide bookworm. And today, we’re talking about Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver.
Liesl & Po is a fairy tale about an orphaned girl named Liesl and a ghost named Po on a mission to help Liesl’s father’s soul find rest. Along the way they are joined by Will, a runaway alchemist’s apprentice who accidentally lost “The Greatest Magic in the World.” Together, they navigate a cold, sunless world while being chased by powerful people who mean them harm. But hope, love and friendship sustain them, and it’s because of their perilous journey that sunlight comes back to the world.
So join me today as we preview this story. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just finished reading your 33rd book so far this year, or you can’t even remember the last time you read a book — this podcast is for you. In fact, if we can change the world one book at a time, then we should all be bookworms.
WHY THIS BOOK
Thanksgiving and Christmas are right around the corner, so I wanted to choose a wholesome, happy book for this episode to usher us into the holiday season.
But I have to be honest with you — I’m not in the holiday spirit this year. I have a very sad memory from last Christmas, and I was hoping I’d be healed from that by now. But I’m not. I’m still grieving.
In fact, I’ve experienced more loss in 2021 than I have in my entire life and I’ve been grieving all year. Literally from December 2020 to this day.
So I just wish I could skip the holidays and go straight to Jan 1, 2022 and start fresh. It’s hard for me to anticipate the joy of thanksgiving and Christmas when all I see are these empty spaces where there should be someone, but they’re not there and there’s nothing I can do about it.
In the book Liesl & Po, an evil alchemist sucks all the sunlight out of the sky to use in a potion, and when the story begins the world has been dark, and cold and grey for 1,728 days. This story starts in a world that looks like how I feel with a little girl struggling with grief and loneliness , which have been my 2 constant companions in 2021.
This is the story that I needed right now, and I hope this story speaks to you if you can relate to loosing someone and having to learn how to keep living through the loss.
However, the first time I read this story was years ago when I was in a much more optimistic and peaceful place and I still loved it even then. So don’t think that this book will drain the sunlight from your life. That won’t happen. Liesl & Po is a children’s book. It’s a quirky little fairy tale that’s fun, magical and sweet. It starts off in dark, sunless place, but by the end of it, sunlight comes back to the world in a big, bright, beautiful way that will leave you smiling.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The author of Liesl & Po is Lauren Oliver. She’s an American novelist who specializes in young adult books. She’s most well known for her best-selling teen novel, Before I Fall, which was turned into a movie in 2017.
Oliver was raised by bookworms. Both of her parents were professors of literature, and they filled their house with books, determined to turn her into a bookworm too. It worked. She would get so engrossed in her favorite stories as a child, that she would write sequels for them just so she could stay in those story worlds. “I was inadvertently a fanfic writer, before “fan fiction” was even a term,” she said.
Liesl & Po is Oliver’s first middle-grade book, and was inspired by a dark period in her life. She says, “At the time, I was dealing with the sudden death of my best friend. The lasting impact of this loss reverberated through the months, and it made my world gray and murky, much like the world, Liesl inhabits at the start of the story. (p. 307)
Writing Liesl & Po was therapeutic for her because it helped her make sense of a world that can be, as we all know, harsh, unfair and “mystifying.”
We’ve all been there. You know how you ask yourself, why did this happen? when something tragic occurs in your life or just in the world in general? Most of the time, we don’t get any real answers.
But stories can help us make peace with the chaos of life. For Oliver writing this story “was a way of finding a happy ending…especially,” she says, “when that happy ending was denied me in real life.” (p. 307)
Now here’s a quick summary of the plot:
Liesl is a little girl who is about 11 years old. Her father has just died and her wicked stepmother has locked her in the attic. One night she is visited by a ghost named Po.
If you’re not at peace when you die, your soul doesn’t move Beyond to rest. Instead, it ends up stuck on the Other Side, which is a ghostly world that runs parallel to the Living world. Po - who could be a girl or could be a boy - it doesn’t remember any more - has been stuck on the Other Side for a long time, but lately it’s been seeing this light in the distance. And that’s a new thing. It’s never seen that before. So it decides to follow it. The light leads Po to Liesl’s attic prison on the Living Side.
Liesl asks Po if it can get a message to her father, and Po agrees to try. It finds her father and tells Liesl that, like itself, her father is stuck on the Other Side. Liesl is distressed by this and decides to break out of the attic, steal her father’s ashes and travel to their old home in the country where her mother is buried. She wants to bury her father's ashes there, believing that will help his soul rest. Po decides to tag along with Liesl and help.
Meanwhile, a little orphan boy named Will has been admiring Liesl from a distance. He, too, has been drawn to the light in her window when he sees her sitting there while he’s running by her house for errands. He works for an evil Alchemist who, years ago, sucked all the sun out of the sky in order to make "The Most Powerful Magic in the World". He’s just finished that magic and charges Will with delivering it to his best customer. But Will accidentally loses the magic and, terrified of the consequences, runs away too.
The story follows Liesl, Po, and Will as they are chased by Will’s egomaniacal alchemist and Liesl’s murderous stepmother through a cold, dark society full of adults whose spirits have been poisoned by a sunless world.
FAVORITE STORY MOMENTS
Central to the story’s plot is a box of magic that the alchemist spent many years painstakingly conjuring. Ingredients include: a perfect snowflake, the laughter of a child, a summer afternoon, and 1 cup of pure sunlight. To get that, the Alchemist had to drain the sun until it shriveled up like a raisin. He calls it the “biggest magic he ever attempted” and its purpose is to “restore youth to the old and bring the dead back to life.”
But his young, sleepy, cold, hungry, overworked apprentice - a little orphan boy named Will, accidentally loses it. Along the way a master theif named Sticky finds it, and Sticky’s reaction to it his discovery is one of my favorite story moments.
At dinner one night, Sticky overhears a discussion of a wooden jewelry box that someone is carrying. He spies out this person and their box and finds another wooden box that looks similar. He fills it with flour and carefully switches the boxes, then runs away full of excitement at the riches he’s just acquired. When he gets to a safe place, he opens the box. And the story reads:
“How to describe his fury—his outrage—his pure and searing disappointment—when instead of piles of rubies and strands of pearls and little, clinking rings—he had instead beheld a pile of dust, of nothing, of worthlessness? (For so the magic looked to him—like dust.) (p. 217).
Sticky expected to see gold and jewels - something he could trade in for what he valued most - money. And when he doesn’t see what he expects to see, he’s outraged and dismisses treasure as trash.
I love how this illustrates the trap that so many of us fall into throughout our lives when we set our hearts on something we want and don’t get it. Usually, we react the same way as Sticky. We’re angry or disappointed and become even more cynical and hardened. And when that happens, we are blinded to the treasure we do have - which can sometimes be, like it was in Sticky’s case - even more valuable than the treasure we were seeking. This little book is full of touching and philosophical insights like that about humanity.
Liesl & Po has a dark beginning with two lonely orphans who are cast out into a sad, colorless world to fend for themselves. Most fairy tales start out like that, but this one is particularly special because it pulls off a story about grief and death in a way that resonates with both children and adults. Oliver’s lyrical prose and quirky cast of characters will take you on a voyage from loss to healing. It’s a heartwarming voyage for those of us reading from a place of peace, and a therapeutic voyage for those of us dealing with our own grief. I highly recommend it.
Liesl & Po will take the average reader about 3 hours to read. That means if you read for at least 30 minutes a day, you should be able to finish this book in a day and a half, which is basically a weekend.
This is the last episode of the We Should All Be Bookworms podcast for 2021. We’re going on hiatus through December and January to rest and, most importantly, read. I’m looking forward to lots and lots of reading.
But thank you so much for listening these last few months. If you haven’t had a chance yet, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts. It’s one of the best ways to support the show. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast so you’ll be notified when we’re back, which will be February 1st of the new year.
In the meantime, hold on to your joy if you’re already in great spirits and excited about the holiday season. And for the rest of us who see this time of year as a little more bitter-sweet. I see you, I’m with you. I get it. And when things get really tough, try picking up a book to read. Reading reminds us that we’re not alone. It shows us that our pain and heartache, our joy and happiness - things that seem unique to ourselves - are actually common things that connect us all to each other across space and time. Understanding that connection is what gets us closer to a better world. And that’s why I firmly believe we should all be bookworms.