Friday, December 14, 2012

Book Review: Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz

"Clara slept. Never in her life had she known so dense a sleep; a sleep without dreaming, without the slightest twitch of finger or eyelid. She was as lifeless as a pressed flower. If she had been awake, she could not have said whether her eyes were open or shut. Her mind was empty, freed from guilt and terror and grief. Only the night before, she had spoken of her fear of cold and darkness; now darkness and cold claimed her, and she was not afraid." 

It is November the sixth, in Victorian London, and Clara Wintermute is turning twelve. To her delight, her father has reluctantly consented to hire the mysterious street performer, Professor Grisini and His Venetian Fantoccini, into their home as her party entertainment.

Yet when the puppetmaster finally arrives, it is his two orphaned assistants, almost-fourteen-year-old Lizzie Rose and probably-eleven-year-old Parsefall, that Clara is most excited to see. Clara thinks their lives must be grand - free from studies, able to perform marionette shows for people out in the open air. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall think Clara's life must be grand - only child of a wealthy household, indulged by her parents, provided with a fine education. But all three children soon find that all is not as they supposed.

Clara vanishes late that evening, with the dark and secretive Grisini pegged as her probable kidnapper. When Grisini suddenly goes missing not long after, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall fear he does indeed have something to do with Clara's disappearance. And soon, they find themselves on an unexpected and dangerous quest to find her. 

For Teachers and Librarians:
Splendors and Glooms is a book that will both hold your students' interest, and provide you with plenty of ways to incorporate the book into a variety of lessons.

It fits nicely into a lesson on literary genres - take your pick of gothic novel, historical fiction, mystery, dark fairy tale, and/or even thriller. And with the magic aspects, vivid dreams, and Lizzie Rose's uncanny sense of smell, you could even argue it touches just a bit if not more so on the edges of paranormal.

The book contains two overlapping stories that eventually converge at a crucial point: after discussion, have your students demonstrate their understanding of this graphically, via Venn Diagram.

Another idea: the author's favorite writer is Charles Dickens, and the book is often described as Dickensian - which leads nicely into a lesson on characteristics of a Dickensian novel, and identification of those characteristics in this book.

During an interview in the Baltimore Sun, the author discusses her interest in Faustian bargains as part of a novel: have your students research and define the term, and then identify the Faustian bargain(s) in this book - who made one, what were the terms, how did things turn out for that character, etc.

You could include the book in a unit on Victorian London: compare/contrast life for rich vs poor, discussing how children fared in each; talk about Victorian mourning customs; have your students research diseases and treatments from that era, with a focus on cholera (which touches Clara's family in a heartbreaking way); plan a lesson on types of entertainment enjoyed during that time period, with a mini-unit on marionette shows and puppetry.

If you have other lesson ideas, feel free to share them in the comments section below.

For Parents, Grandparents and Caregivers:
Make sure your kiddos don't have anywhere to be before you hand them Splendors and Glooms, or when it's time to go, you may hear repeated cries of, "Wait! I just have to finish this part first!" It is a book full of mystery, suspense and magic that will keep them wanting to turn pages - but not too quickly. There is much to take in, and they'll want to take their time to make sure they experience it all. Your young readers will feel for the characters as they navigate the well-meaning yet at times very misunderstood bonds of family, as they work to establish and maintain friendships, as they learn to recognize and trust those people in their lives who prove themselves true and genuine, and as they struggle to find their true place in the world.

For the Kids:
Splendors and Glooms isn't your average, run-of-the-mill book with magic in it. Nope. It has the kind of magic that you have to really pay attention to see. It hides from you, but hints at you. It peeks out from behind the corners, or ducks behind the couch just as you catch a glimpse of it, so that you can't help but chase it around because you just have to know what's going on. At the same time, maybe you're a teensy bit scared to catch up to it - though you'd never admit it - because that magic may or may not be evil. So you read the book. And you keep reading, shivering a little sometimes, peeking through the cracks between the fingers you've clamped over your eyes at other times, and giggling here and there in between, 'cause you just have to know what's going on, and how it all turns out. No matter how long it takes.

Clara is a twelve-year-old rich girl living in Victorian London who seems to have it all in the eyes of almost-fourteen-year-old Lizzie Rose and probably-eleven-year-old Parsefall. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are assistant puppeteers who seem to live a free and easy life in the eyes of Clara. Each longs for the life of the other, for different reasons. But each of them has secrets and griefs and guilt and fears that none of the others know about. Throw in an evil puppetmaster and a doomed and vengeful witch, and you've got the makings of a book that you Will. Not. Put. Down.

For Everyone Else:
What can I say about Splendors and Glooms that I haven't already said? Probably plenty. But no matter what your age, if what I've said so far isn't enough to entice you to read this thoroughly wonderful novel, maybe the section below is:

Wrapping Up:
Splendors and Glooms is the type of book a reader wants to linger over. With an abundance of rich description, many twists and turns, suspense, mystery, touches of humor, a goodly dose of good vs evil in many forms, and a variety of very real and strong and relatable emotions, to rush the read means to miss far too much. And not to read it at all would just be a terrible shame. So go. Get the book. Then grab a blanket, curl up on the couch, and start reading.

Title: Splendors and Glooms
Author: Laura Amy Schlitz
Jacket Illustration: Bagram Ibatoulline
Pages: 400
Reading Level: Ages 9 and up
Publisher and Date: Candlewick Press, 2012
Edition: 1st Edition
Language: English
Published In: United States
Price: $17.99
ISBN-10: 0763653802
ISBN-13: 978-0-7636-5380-4

Author Spotlight: Laura Amy Schlitz

Laura Amy Schlitz is a true creative soul. She loves to make things (bread, marionettes, quilts, watercolors, and origami animals), and write things (books, plays and stories). She has been by turns and/or simultaneously: a playwright, a storyteller, a costumer, an actress, a children's author, and a children's librarian.

Born January 1, 1956, in Baltimore, Maryland, Ms Schlitz graduated from Goucher College with a B.A. in aesthetics in 1977. She spent three years in the 1980s as an actress touring with the Baltimore-based Children's Theater Association. She has been since 1991 - and continues to be - a children's librarian at Park School in Baltimore, MD. And all the while, she writes.

Ms Schlitz has so far written six books for children, all published by
Candlewick Press. In 2008, she won the Newbery Medal for Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, illustrated by Robert Byrd (2007). Her most recent work is Splendors and Glooms (2012). Her other titles include: Bearskinner: a tale of the Brothers Grimm (2007); Hero Schliemann: the dreamer who dug for Troy (2006); Night Fairy (2010); and A Drowned Maiden's Hair: A Melodrama (2006).

In addition to her children's books, Ms Schlitz has written children's plays, which have been produced by professional theaters around the USA.

Ms Schlitz, whose favorite author is Charles Dickens, lives in Maryland.

Bios: Laura Amy Schlitz - Candlewick Press
Laura Amy Schlitz -
Laura Amy Schlitz - BTSB Bookstore
Newbery Winner Laura Amy Schlitz publishes her magnum opus - Baltimore Sun article
Q&A with Laura Amy Schlitz - PW Weekly