Splendors and Glooms by Newbery-winning author Laura Amy Schlitz is one of those kids’ books that is so well written that I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to any adult who likes a book full of atmosphere. Atmosphere is the word that rises to the top of all the other words (of which there are quite a few, but I’ll get to that) that I could use to describe this very suspenseful story. It’s the story of two orphans, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, and the adventures they are unwittingly thrust into thanks to their “guardian,” the evil puppet master Grisini. The story also involves a poor little rich girl named Clara Wintermuse who has everything but a happy childhood because of the shadow of the Others, her four siblings that died in quick succession of cholera, that haunts her home. I don’t want to provide any spoilers at all for this story because it is, after all, a suspenseful one that’s best discovered with little prior knowledge. However, I do want to mention the fact that this book is pretty dark, with lots of magic and a real witch, and even some blood and gore. I’m pretty sure it would probably give a lot of conservative readers pause. One redeeming thing about this aspect of the story is that the magic really is bad, as in even the person–the witch–who does most of it realizes this and is tormented by it. There is no question whatsoever about that. Still, though, I think this story would likely scare sensitive readers. That’s just a little caveat that I feel obligated to mention for my usual blog readership.
Where was I? Oh, yes–atmosphere. Splendors and Glooms has it in spades. Although the time period is never specified, it’s fairly obviously Victorian London, with its soot, grime, fog, and poverty. Schlitz‘s characters rival Dickens’, with their brain-tickling names (Mrs. Pinchbeck? the Wintermuses?) and peculiarities. Her descriptions absolutely make me feel as if I’m right there in the story:
Grisin’s landlady, Mrs. Pinchbeck, was fond of pets. In her narrow, three-story house, she maintained five dogs, two cats, a parrot, and a canary. Lizzie Rose loved dogs, but life at Mrs. Pinchbeck’s had taught her the melancholy truth that there could be too many. Since coming to live with Grisini, Lizzie Rose had taken it upon herself to see that the dogs were walked twice a day, but the results were not satisfactory. At least one of the dogs–Lizzie Rose suspected Pomeroy, the bulldog–was not housebroken, and the house was pungent indeed. It was also noisy: the lodger on the top floor played the trumpet, the cats waged war in the back alley, the canary was shrill, the parrot strident, and the dogs yapped frantically whenever they heard anything, saw anything, or smelled anything. (50)
I love this! The creepy bits of the story are just as good, rich in description to the point that I can really imagine how the house where the children end up looks. Atmosphere and strong characterization are two things that make me love a book, and this one has both. Lizzie Rose, Parsefall, and Clara are all fully realized, dynamic characters. Even the witch in the story gets a bit of redemption in the end.
Although it is a creepy story and at times made me slightly uncomfortable to think about its being read by a child, overall I can definitely see the Newbery potential in the story. Is it a Cybils contender? I’m not sure about that because I think it would take an older reader, a really strong reader, or a reader accustomed to dense stories with a good bit of descriptions–in other words, I don’t know if the “kid appeal” required by the Cybils is there. I’m curious about Laura Ann Schlitz’s other works now, though–that’s for sure. (Candlewick, 2012)