Summary + Review
Twelve-year-old Olivia Stellatella (love that protagonist name, by the way!) is a troubled, angry main character, and readers can quickly see why. At the beginning of The Year of Shadows, Olivia is moving into a storage room in a dilapidated old concert hall with her grandmother and father. The reason for Olivia’s near homelessness is her father, whom she will only refer to as “the Maestro”. He is the conductor of an orchestra that has hit hard financial times, and his obsession with trying to keep it afloat has driven Olivia’s mother away (or, at least, that’s how she sees it).
Olivia’s anger has successfully prevented any friendships from forming, except with young protestor Joan Dawson and popular, ever-reliable, music enthusiast Henry Page. Olivia also finds a feline companion, Igor, at Emerson Hall. Early on in the book, however, Olivia makes some unexpected new friends. She and Henry discover ghosts at Emerson! These ghosts explain that they need Olivia’s help in releasing them to the “world of Death” and avoiding Limbo where they will become hungry, aimless spirits called “shades”. The ghosts have become trapped at Emerson because artifacts important to them during their living days, called “anchors,” are lost somewhere in or near the music hall. In order to find them, the ghosts need to “share” the circumstances of their deaths with humans, in an experience somewhat like being possessed. Olivia feels some sort of purpose and importance at the ghosts’ request, so she agrees, and Henry does, too.
Sharing, Olivia and Henry quickly find out, is painful and exhausting. But they manage to help one ghost pass on, so other spirits quickly seek their services. In addition to this conflict, Emerson Hall is at risk of being shut down for good. This means that the ghosts will be unable to move on…and Olivia, her grandmother, and the Maestro will become homeless. The last thing Olivia wants to do is help her father, but she realizes she must do something to keep the orchestra alive.
I immediately took to the characters of Claire Legrand’s novel. I’m sure most readers will love Henry, but precocious, outspoken Joan was probably my favorite. I loved how she stood up for Olivia, often in the name of equal rights. 🙂 Besides the well-described characters, I think it took until about halfway through the novel for the plot to come together. I thought it was unclear, for awhile, what the main conflict was. Once the loose ends were tied together, I couldn’t stop reading. Olivia endures a lot of really heavy stuff for a middle grade novel, none of which has anything to do with ghosts. The sad moments and the lighter moments, like Olivia’s “conversations” with Igor and her denials about liking Henry, are blended together in a storyline that reads more like realistic fiction than fantasy. Again, Legrand’s characterization is what really shines, and readers will want to cheer on Olivia, Henry, and Joan as they try to save Emerson Hall. The ghosts are fun and shades become downright spooky, but the heart of this novel is about friendship and family dynamics.
Just had to mention that some of my favorite moments of this book were the triumphs Olivia, Henry, and Joan experienced in their promotion of Emerson Hall as being haunted. I don’t care if this part of the plot was predictable or not, I thought Legrand described it in a darned clever way. I also liked that the author didn’t resolve all conflicts in the end. I know this drives a lot of readers crazy, but I appreciate being able to predict what will happen to characters and be as positive or pessimistic about it as I want to be. 🙂 My only issue with the plot was the orchestra’s final concert. I thought Emerson Hall had been condemned…? It made for a nice, final moment, but I don’t think it would be kept open just to accommodate for the Maestro’s accident.
The Year of Shadows is a middle grade novel, and it reads like one, albeit a really smart middle grade novel. (This is not to discredit all the other really great middle grade novels out there, but I think this is a targeted reading audience whom I’ve seen authors really under-estimate or over-estimate: I’ve read overly-simplistic, plotless MG stuff and I’ve read the MG stuff featuring 11- and 12-year-old characters that would not, in my opinion, appeal to that age group at all.) A lot of Legrand’s setting descriptions require imagination and thoughtful reading; I only say this because I think the tendency, sometimes, is to assume that books measured at a lower Lexile or for younger readers should automatically be placed in reluctant readers’ hands. Teachers: Don’t fall into this trap!
This book is free from any inappropriate language or sexual content, of course. There is some violence when Olivia and Henry experience “sharing” and the shades get out of control. I suppose the same groups who try to get the Harry Potter books banned for “promoting witchcraft” will take issue with Legrand’s descriptions of Limbo and ghostly possession. However, I think most middle-grade readers are mature enough and smart enough to realize that this is a work of fiction. (Can you tell my feelings on book banning? :o/ )
-Dialogue use, especially inner dialogue. Discuss with students if they think Igor, the cat, is really communicating with Olivia or if it’s all in her head.
-Characterization. No character is unimportant in this book, and students could learn a lot about direct and indirect characterization (especially with Olivia’s mood and motivation), and how characters are made “round”.
-I think one could say this contains some symbolism. The part that describes Limbo, in particular, could be discussed for what the different ‘features’ represent (can’t say any more than that without giving stuff away!)
Recommended passage(s) for book talks:
“But we wouldn’t hurt you. I bet that’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?” In a whirl of wind, he rushed down to sit across from us and propped his head in his hands. “I remember loving ghost stories when I was a boy. How silly they were — harmless, I suppose, but silly and wrong. “Why won’t you hurt us?” I said. Henry pinched my hand. “Don’t ask him that!” “Why would I want to hurt you? Why would any of us?” I shook off Henry’s hand. “Don’t ghosts do that?” Tillie and Jax settled in smoky pools on either side of Frederick. “Some do,” they whispered in chorus. “But there’s no need to be frightened around us.” Darkness dripped from where Frederick’s teeth should have been. “You have my word.” He stretched out his hand — or smoke and darkness in the vague shape of a hand. I narrowed my eyes at him. “How am I supposed to trust your handshake if you don’t really have a hand?” (Simon & Schuster 2013 hardcover, page 100) Henry said, “It’s okay, Frederick. You can do it.” I stood there, trying to hold up this fake smile. My face felt close to breaking. Then Frederick began to play, and I know I hated music and everything to do with it, but even I knew when a piece of music was really good. Like this one. It’s this strange feeling, when you hear a good piece of music. It starts out kind of shaky, this hot, heavy knot in your chest. At first it’s tiny, like a spot of light in a dark room, but then it builds, pouring through you. And the next thing you know, everything from your forehead down to your fingers and toes is on fire. You feel like the hot, heavy knot in your chest is turning into a bubble. It’s full of everything good in the world, and if you don’t do something — if you don’t run or dance or shout to everyone in the world about this music you’ve just heard — it’ll explode. That’s what I felt that night. And judging by the look on Henry’s face, he was feeling it too. (pp. 183-184)
Claire Legrand on The Year of Shadows:
Claire Legrand’s webpage for The Year of Shadows is chock-full of cool stuff to use to promote, teach with, or reflect with after reading the book: a playlist Claire created to match each scene, her visual inspiration board, teaching ideas (compliments of unleashingreaders.com), an interview with the illustrator, etc., etc.!: The Year of Shadows
The Year of Shadows may go down slow at first, but patient readers will see desirable results after a few chapters. These include smiles, tears, and awe at Claire Legrand’s incredible writing and creativity. Highly recommended for music lovers, not-too-scary ghost story lovers, and those who just enjoy an imaginative plot with well-developed characters.