Monday, January 21, 2013

'Splendors and Glooms'

Children's fantasy novels of today seem to be a bit different from those I read when I was a little kid.  The princesses are still here, of course, but now they tend to rescue themselves, which is a step in the right direction.  Dragons still rule, but instead of rampaging throughout the land, they have a tender side; instead of taking the princess prisoner, she takes hold of the beast's heart through communication and love.  It's similar to a girl's love for a horse; steady, true, and heartfelt.

I've also found that children's fantasy stories are darker and more complex.  Children today are confronted and confounded with adult situations that would have never been thrust upon them a few decades ago.  Although life isn't so innocent anymore, the slow progression of the Harry Potter books gently led children into dark territory; they grew along with Harry and, together, became older and wiser.  It's all fun-and-games until Voldemort shows up.

'Splendors and Glooms', the new children's book written by the brilliant Amy Schlitz, takes the reader into a world that is at once dark and depressing.  A witch burns, an artifact rules her life, thievery is an antidote to her suffering.  And then the story lightens up...but just barely.  In Victorian England, Clara, the only child of a wealthy doctor and his wife, is preparing to celebrate her birthday.  While at a park days earlier, she sees a puppet show and asks her father if the troupe could entertain at her party.  Although the puppeteers are a poor, dirty bunch, the father agrees to Clara's request.

The master puppeteer, Gaspare Grisini, is an expert at his craft, making his puppets seem very lifelike.  His helpers, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, are dazzled by Clara's home; the warmth, the abundance of food, the fine clothing.  But Clara hides a secret, one she is scared to reveal.  When Clara vanishes the night after her party, Grisini is the main suspect.

Lizzie and Parsefall soon learn about their master's criminal past, and while on the hunt for Clara, are caught in a trap set by Grisini's ancient rival, a witch with a deadly inheritance that must be passed down.

'Splendors and Glooms' is all about secrets and lies, misplaced intentions, and the loss of innocence.  Evil lurks around every corner, but strength, love, and courage vanquish even the darkest places.

Schlitz has written with compassion, and the gothic flavor blends beautifully with the darkness of everyday life for those living under the poorest circumstances in Victorian England.  She shows her young readers that life wasn't always fun, that even those with the greatest wealth didn't have the greatest comfort.  And those who offer false friendship should be avoided at any cost.

Amy Schlitz is the author of 'Good Masters!  Sweet Ladies!  Voices from a Medieval Village', which was a recipient of the Newbery medal.

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