On the outside? Between the Lines is an ordinary, kinda chunky YA novel.
But, inside? Some full-colour illustrations and a generous amount of silhouette artwork are scattered throughout the text, which is printed in three different colours.
It begins with “The Beginning”, in black text, and a once-upon-a-time tale. This is the story that Delilah is reading.
But readers haven’t met her yet. And neither has Oliver.
Who is the boy living the once-upon-a-time tale.
Over and over. Ad nauseum.
For Delilah is big on rereading.
Readers actually meet Oliver first. Which is only fair, because he more desperately needs to meet people. (The only people he has ever known are those stuck in the fairy tale with him, whose lives repeat in blue ink.) And, like a typical fairy-tale boy, he is craving something “more”.
“I wouldn’t mind doing anything other than the sme old things I have done for as long as I can remember. I guess I just have to believe there’s more to the world than what’s inside these pages. Or maybe it’s just that I desperately want to believe that.”
And, Delilah, too, wants something “more”. She prefers stories to her high school reality, which unfolds in green print. “No thanks; I’d much rather pretend I’m somewhere else, and any time I open the pages of a book, that happens.”
The hitch is that their needs are in conflict. Oliver is frantic to escape the endless repetition of living the same story whenever a reader opens the book he inhabits. And Delilah is desperate for the security that a familar and predictable — and happy — ending offers.
But Oliver and Delilah have a great deal in common as well. “Being a teenager isn’t all that different from being part of someone else’s story, then. There’s always someone who thinks they know better than you do.”
Oliver is looking for a world in which he is free to be something other than Oliver-in-the-fairy-tale and Delilah is looking for a world in which she can be herself. And what is more appropriate thematically for a teen novel than exploring identity and finding a place in the world.
The mechanics of the situation, which allow for character and reader to connect, are described vaguely enough to appeal to a wide variety of readers. And as various attempts are made to unite Oliver and Delilah, the border between fantasy and reality shifts to allow for more possibilities. Readers learn, for instance, that Oliver’s experience is not exactly limited to what is written on the pages of the story in black ink.
Some of the older characters in Oliver’s story have suggestions which widen his world, even when he is stuck in the context of the story which Delilah has reread so many times. “You know that anything that was in the author’s mind might exist in the book, even if it doesn’t show up in the proper story.”
There are many playful moments in which commentary is offered about the creative process (particularly in relationship to the story’s author, who had her own reasons for writing Oliver’s story in that specific way) and traditional fairy tale elements. For instance, Oliver observes: “One of the great ironies of this book is that the mermaids, in real life, don’t have a boy-crazy bone in their bodies.”
However, this is not an opportunity for Jodi Picoult or Samantha van Leer (mother and daughter) to show off her experience with Bruno Bettelheim or Maria Tatar.
Only the briefest of allusions is made to the tradition of wonder tales which preceded the Disney versions which have been so popular recently, and although some expectations are subverted (like, perhaps, with the mermaids), readers hoping to spot of a glimpse of Marina-Warner inspired critical-thinking will be disappointed. (As will those who prefer traditional language usage.)
There isn’t a lot between the lines in this novel; it is an entertaining diversion which is beautifully packaged. But the idea simmering beneath is complex indeed.
The relationship between book and reader can be profound; a narrative can transform a reader and many witers and readers have explored the concept of co-creating which unfolds when mind and story meet.
And for many bookish folks, what is bound between covers can often be more real than the world beyond those pages.
“I liked thinking that whatever Delilah and I had between us was so strong that there was no boundary between the true and the imagined, the book and the Reader. I liked the idea that although I started my lfe as a figment of someone’s imagination, that didn’t make me any less real.”
Jodi Picoult and daughter Samantha Van Leer use this idea as a touchstone, but just as Delilah and her mother prefer the Disney versions of the darker tales which inspired the studio, Between the Lines touches upon some serious themes but keeps them at a distance, so that readers feel free to race to the happy ending.
Or, is it a happy ending? In some ways, yes, for both Oliver’s and Delilah’s yearnings are satisfied to a degree. But there are complications.
Note: If you want to avoid spoilers, avoid the inner flap of Off the Page, which summarizes the events and conclusion of Between the Lines. (If, on the other hand, you don’t want to read the first volume in the series, the flap will suffice.)
Off the Page employs all the striking presentation elements in the series’ first volume, beginning with a colourful map by Yvonne Gilbert, and the first chapter headed by one of Scott M. Fischer’s silhouettes.
Many familiar elements are demarcated, like the unicorn meadow and the enchanted forest, and readers will be reminded of the dragon who wore braces and will recall the scenes which played out on Everafter Beach.
The text is dual-coloured, blue and green, the former for the “real” world and the latter for the fairy-tale world.
One recurring character who is welcomed back immediately is Delilah’s best friend, Jules, whose Mohawk has grown out into a midnight-blue-coloured bob. (She says things like “I’m barfing rainbows”: my favourite.) And the scenes set in the high-school will inherently appeal to many young readers, with an abundance of dialogue and recognizable settings and conflicts.
“The really crappy thing about being a teenager is that even if you have a legitimate, monumental problem – the sky is falling or the zombie apocalypse has begun or you’ve contracted the plague – you still have to do your geometry homework.”
Fairy tales are populated with archetypes and there is an abundance of two-dimensional characters in this series too (the nerds run for class when they’re only 15 minutes early and the president of the LGBT Alliance has his own bow-tie business). The female characters possess a degree of agency that allows them to reach beyond the achievements of conventional heroines, but ultimately they are preoccupied with their romantic interest, their desire to connect with — or reunite with — “the one”.
The central theme of Off the Page revolves around a prince-pauper riff, which suits YA novels preoccupied with questions of identity.
“It’s not all that difficult to be the person people expect you to be. It’s harder to remember who you really are.”
The idea of adapting to an unfamiliar environment has a timeless appeal and is at the root of the humour in this story. Nonetheless, things do take a darker turn in this follow-up volume.
“I wish that someone would flip backward through the pages of the story…bringing us back to the Once Upon a Time.”
Readers flipping back in Off the Page might want to take a moment to peek beneath the dustjacket; the binding is a light purple (like the book which houses Oliver’s original story, the book that Delilah kept rereading) and the spine is lettered beautifully in an old-fashioned storybook style.
The cloth bound cover is embossed with a small image, too, which reminded me how much I loved the small scattered silhouettes throughout the first volume.
In the second volume, the silhouettes are intricate and impressive as subject headings, and they add as much character to the story as the lushly illustrated pages, but the small figures added an element of whimsy which is missing in the second volume.
Those who prefer some shady elements amidst the saccharine, who appreciate the more subversive elements of fairy tales for older readers (Neil Gaiman’s Stardust or Sheri Tepper’s Beauty), may long for more adventure.
But those seeking a light-hearted diversion with a side of bookishness could find a happy ending in their relationship with Between the Lines and Off the Page.