Tag Archive: death


and we stay

And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard

Emily has been sent to a private board school in Amherst so that she doesn’t have to face all of the questions at her public high school.  Her boyfriend, Paul, brought a gun to school.  Emily is sure that Paul never meant to hurt her, though he did threaten her with the gun.  She is also sure that he never planned to kill himself with it, though that is what he did.  At her private school, she doesn’t quite fit in.  She doesn’t wear the right shoes and her reluctance to talk about what happened and why she is there mid-term doesn’t lead others to get closer to her.  Emily finds herself more and more interested in Emily Dickinson whose home is in Amherst.  She starts writing poems herself, putting her grief and confusion on the page in poems that she plans to never share with anyone.  But as the days go by, she becomes closer with her room mate and other girls on campus, including one of the teachers.  It is now up to Emily to figure out how much she is willing to share of her own role in Paul’s death.

Hubbard’s writing is crystalline and brilliant.  She captures the stunned nature of sudden loss with clarity and understanding.  Emily could easily have become and inaccessible character to readers as well since she is prickly and shut down.  Instead though, Hubbard creates a space around Emily for readers to understand her and feel her pain.

A large part of this is through her poems which honor Dickinson, follow her structure and voice closely at times, and other times reveal Emily’s soul in brief lines that shine.  These poems serve as islands in a sea of pain and grief.  They are concrete and dazzlingly good.  They are bright with hope as one can see in each one Emily moving forward toward the future after putting her pain on the page. 

Beautiful writing, a strong heroine, and plenty of poetry make this a very unique and exceptional book about loss and suicide.  Appropriate for ages 14-16.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and NetGalley.

ketchup clouds

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

Zoe stays up late at night and writes to her pen pal, a Texas death row prisoner who murdered his wife.  He is the only one with whom she can share her dark secret:  she too killed someone.  Zoe slowly reveals her story, including her own role in a boy’s death and living with the aftermath of having done it.  Zoe’s story is one of being drawn to two boys, using one against the other, and the startling result of her betrayal.  It is a story of love that is beyond the expected, first romance that is tortured but desperately real, and the wounds left behind that are impossible to heal.

Pitcher, author of My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, has returned with a beautifully written second novel.  She lays bare Zoe as a character, giving her the space to reveal herself in all of her remorse and conflict.  Here is one of my favorite passages in the book:

I’d do anything to forget.  Anything.  Eat the spider or stand naked on top of the shed or do math homework every day for the rest of my life.  Whatever it took to wipe my brain clean like you can with computers, pressing a button to delete the images and the words and the lies.

But perhaps what Pitches does best in this novel is to build tension and doubt.  Throughout the book until the final reveal, readers do not know which of the boys died.  Pitcher writes in a way that lets readers fall for both of them for different reasons, so that either one’s death is a grand tragedy and something to destroy lives. 

This is a book that is burning and compelling.  It is a book that is beautifully honest, vibrantly written.  This is Zoe’s heart on a page in all of its wounds and glory.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from digital copy received from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.

where do we go when we disappear

Where Do We Go When We Disappear? by Isabel Minhos Martins and Madalena Matoso

I recently reviewed My Neighbor Is a Dog, another new book by this author and illustrator duo.  In this book, the question of where people and things go when they disappear is explored thoroughly.  The result is a book that asks big questions and attempts to answer them or at least provide a framework to answer them.  The book begins with people disappearing and the idea that you must be missed in order to disappear, so disappearing takes two.  Then it moves on to other things that disappear like sunshine and clouds, socks and puddles, snow and noise.  It ends with the fact that everything disappears, even the most solid things like rocks over time will disappear. 

Translated from the Portuguese original, this book is thought provoking and fascinating.  Martins manages to right a book about big questions that answers them in a way that is exploratory and insightful and doesn’t turn quickly to a religious answer.  Instead she stays in the questioning place, allowing different ideas to surface and be discussed.  She does not provide any easy answers, meeting children right where they want the discussion to stay, where it leads to more and more questions.

Matoso’s illustrations are vibrantly colored and filled with strong shapes.  They appear to be block printed which adds to the organic feel.  She uses negative space brilliantly.  One example is her snow image with the background white and the flakes cut out circles that merge directly into the white and stand out against the other bright objects.

Challenging, thought-provoking and a book that will inspire discussion and help children find their own answers.  Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from library copy.

More Than This by Patrick Ness

more than this

More Than This by Patrick Ness

Released September 10, 2013.

After Seth drowns, bones smashed against rocks, muscles clenching in the icy water, he wakes up.  He is naked except for some bandages and very weak, but most disturbing, he is back in England at his childhood home.  A home that contains many of the worst memories of his life, except for his most recent ones.  There is no one else around, even the insects are silent and no birds or planes fly overhead.  Seth is completely alone in a world that is covered with dust and dirt.  Seth can’t sleep either because whenever he does, memories sweep over him, specifically ones that he would prefer to never remember and it’s as if he was living them all over again.  Is this the afterlife?  His own personal hell?  Seth has to first figure out how to survive and then start finding answers.

Ness creates a world, a hell, an afterlife, a future that is breathtakingly haunting.  It is profoundly empty, amazingly personal, and intensely confusing.  Readers who enter this book will be taken on a journey that is astonishing.  It is a puzzle that they will solve along with Seth and the answer will be astonishing.  I don’t want to give things away because the book is such a journey to the truth.

Ness writes powerfully of first loves, suicide and having to life with one’s decisions.  Seth’s death in the water is described in great detail, each moment captures, each pain explored.  As the memories flash into his head, the reader starts to understand what drove Seth to kill himself but also other deep truths about Seth and his life. 

Complex, gritty and profoundly beautiful, this book is a wonder of writing.  It is beyond inventive, taking readers to a place they never expected to find.  You are in the hands of a master storyteller here in one of his best books yet.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from ARC received from Candlewick Press.

my fathers arms are a boat

My Father’s Arms Are a Boat by Stein Erik Lunde, illustrated by Oyvind Torseter, translated by Kari Dickson

Published on February 5, 2013.

There are some picture books that you read the first few lines and you realize you are somewhere new and unknown.  This is that sort of book.  It is the story of a young boy who is unable to fall asleep.  His father is there, sitting in the living room by the fire.  The boy returns to his father and climbs onto his lap.  His father talks about cutting down a big spruce together the next day.  The boy asks about the red birds that they left bread for.  He worries about the fox stealing their bread too. His grandmother told him that the red birds are dead people and then the book turns and is about the loss of his mother and grief.  It is handled with such care and delicacy and the young boy is surrounded with such obvious love that it is achingly exquisite.

This book is not really about what I captured in the paragraph above.  It is about sorrow and grief, the sort of sorrow that can only be fleetingly captured in a silent flight of birds or a lone fox in the snow.  It is about the loss of a mother, but also about the days following when grief is all you can bear and think of.  This book reads like a beautiful ache, a heartbeat of grief where life must go on.  The writing is expressive and poetic, just like the title.

Torseter’s illustrations are also unusual and amazing.  Done in folded paper and collage, they have a 3-dimensional quality to them that invites in shadows.  Most of the images are black, white and grey, though the red birds and the orange fox are pops of color.  Beautiful and delicate, the slumps of the shoulders of the characters tell of the sad truth before the words do.  The winter setting too is cold and a bit wild, reflecting the mood of the story.

Stunning in its writing and illustration, this is a picture book that is noteworthy and memorable.  Appropriate for ages 6-8.

Reviewed from copy received from Enchanted Lion Books.

Last Laughs: Animal Epitaphs by J. Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolen, illustrated by Jeffrey Stewart Timmins

Perfect to pull out around Halloween time, this book features a series of very funny epitaphs for dead animals.  After the introductory poem to the pet cemetery, readers will discover short poems about specific animals.  There are farm animals like chickens and cows (the cow one happens to be one of my favorites) and more exotic fare like barracuda, iguana and eels.  All dead, for a variety of wild and domestic reasons to hilarious effect.  The poems are riddled with puns, something that I adore.  They are sure to be hits with children when shared aloud or read in person.

Timmins’ art has the same dark humor as the poems themselves.  Make sure you notice the sheep pooping into the river the dead horse just drank out of.  It’s exactly what children will find funny.

Dark and fiercely funny, these poems are not for the preschool set, but will be giggled at galore by elementary aged children.  Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from library copy.

laugh with the moon

Laugh with the Moon by Shana Burg

After her mother dies, Clare’s father takes her to Malawi where he had worked as a young doctor.  Clare is determined to never speak to her father again.  She has lost not just her mother, but her best friend and the potential for her first boyfriend at school.  Now she is stuck in Africa where there is little hot water, mosquito netting over the bed, and monkeys screaming outside.  As Clare starts to relax into life in Africa, she begins to make incredible friends at her new school.  Memory, a girl from the local village, quickly becomes her closest friend.  Memory too has lost her mother, though the girls don’t speak of their losses together.  Memory makes sure that Clare has things that she can eat, explains the school day to her, and even warns her of the bully in class.  As Clare faces her new school with its new language, visiting chickens, and scurrying insects, her relationship with her father starts to get better.  Clare still has big issues to face, including teaching English, putting together a play, and another large loss in her life.

Burg truly brings Malawi to life with its strong culture, the stark differences between America and Africa, and the warmth of the people.  Her writing is an invitation to explore Africa.  She celebrates both the differences in cultures and the universal aspects of life, filling the book with details that paint a full picture. 

Clare is a complex character, grieving from the loss of her mother, at first she seems remote and difficult to relate to.  Happily, she soon grows past that, becoming a vivacious personality with opinions and skills.  Her art forms a connection between her and other people who may not speak the same language, but it is her open personality that does the rest. 

The book would make a good choice for reading aloud in a classroom setting since it explores so many themes and topics.  There is plenty to discuss from death and grieving to dealing with living in another part of the world.  The glorious cover will get this moving from the shelf into young hands directly too.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Delacorte Press.

roller coaster kid

The Roller Coaster Kid by Mary Ann Rodman, illustrated by Roger Roth

Zach loves spending time in the summer with his grandparents.  They go to the beach, fly kites, find shells, and go to Oceanside Park.  The only thing Zach doesn’t like there is the rollercoaster.  He waits in line with Grandpa but then always changes his mind at the last moment.  Instead, he rides the Big Wheel with his grandmother.  Zach knows that the next time, he will be able to ride the rollercoaster.  But the next time he visits, everything is different: his grandmother is no longer there.  His grandfather is not like he used to be at all.  Zach knows one thing that is sure to cheer up his grandfather, and that’s the rollercoaster.  But will Zach be able to ride it this one, very important, time?

Rodman tells this story with clarity and gentleness.  It’s a story of the deep connection between grandparents and grandchildren and how that connection can help with grief.  It is also a story of bravery thanks to love.  Children will relate to the connection with grandparents, though the jolly cover may not warn parents that this is a story of loss. 

Roth’s illustrations have a subtle vintage quality to them, something that hearkens back to yesteryear though it is solidly set in the modern day.  The illustrations of Zach on the rollercoaster are wonderful, showing the fear, the doubt and finally the exhilaration. 

A roller coaster book that shows the roller coaster ride of life as well, this book addresses the loss of a grandparent with a shining heart.  Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from copy received from Viking.

devine intervention

Devine Intervention by Martha Brockenbrough

When his best friend shot him in the head with an arrow, Jerome died instantly.  Now he finds himself in between Heaven and Hell, given a second chance to save himself from eternal torment.  He’s been appointed as Heidi’s guardian angel as part of soul rehabilitation.  Jerome didn’t actually read the handbook for guardian angels, so he’s mostly just winging it.  Heidi has heard Jerome’s voice in her head since she was small.  When she got older, she started to realize that others don’t hear voices like that and that she may be crazy.  So Heidi started to withdraw and kept more and more to herself.  She doesn’t always listen to Jerome’s advice, though he tries to help.  So when she and her best friend head on stage during Talentpalooza and there is a major wardrobe malfunction, Heidi has no one but herself to blame.  But that’s not why she was out on the pond’s thin ice at all.  Though her life (or death) will never be the same after falling through.

Brockenbrough strikes just the write tone in this novel.  While deep issues are dealt with, she keeps the writing light and playful.  It helps that she is a truly funny author, writing with a hilarity that makes reading the novel pure fun.  At the same time, she does fully explore the meaning of life in the book, what death may hold for us, and the importance of family, even dysfunctional ones.  Her lighter tone makes these deeper issues all the more reflective and powerful.

The two main characters are very successfully drawn.  For me, Jerome is the voice of the book.  It is his perspective on life and death that makes the book work so well.  Heidi on the other hand is vital to the book, but doesn’t have the whiz and bang of Jerome.  That said, a book only needs one star of a character.  Heidi makes a grand secondary lead character, offering a different perspective and a lot of action to the book.

This funny teen novel about death and life features juvenile delinquents as guardian angels.  I think that explains a lot about life.  Appropriate for ages 13-15.

Reviewed from ARC received from Arthur A. Levine Books.

greyhound of a girl

A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle

Four generations of a Dublin family come together in this ghost story.  Mary is a modern Dublin pre-teen who finds herself moving away from her childhood rituals but also wanting to cling to them too.  One day on her way home from school, she meets Tansey, a woman who wants her to give a message to her grandmother.  Mary forgets, distracted by visiting her grandmother in the hospital with her mother.  So it isn’t until later that she mentions the woman to her mother, who pales at being told the name, Tansey, because that was her own grandmother’s name.  Soon Mary is having her mother meet Tansey and her relationship is revealed as is her status as a ghost.  The three of them conspire to get Tansey and her daughter together again, even though Tansey can’t survive the harsh lighting of the hospital.  The result is a road trip filled with hellos, memories, family stories, and goodbyes.  Richly layered, this slim volume holds a grand tale.

Doyle plays with the format of a ghost story here, at first starting with a little shiver and danger and then turning the story into that of a family that has dealt with an early death for generations.  It is a story of maternal love and the connections of women in a maternal line.  It is also the story of loss, death and above all, life.  Doyle creates fascinating characters, particularly in the two older women, Tansey and Emer.  Their stories have a pastoral beauty, a vivid warmth, and yet are damaged by death.  It is poignant, lovely and tragic.

The story is character driven and told in a slow, transformational way.  It takes its time, filled with small moments of lives, hands wrapped around tea cups, children on laps, slow steps up stairs for the last time.  Yet it is not a slow story, it is engaging, rich and builds a mood that is inescapable and memorable.

I loved this little book and the world that it created that seemed just for me.  Doyle’s writing is confident and beautiful, meticulously crafted.  This is a ghost story but so much more as well.  Appropriate for ages 11-13.

Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.

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