Tag Archive: death


Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley

Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley (InfoSoup)

Buckley and his mother live together in a little cabin near the ocean. Buckley loves to explore the beach near their house, collecting driftwood to build little boats. One day he sends a favorite boat out to his father, whom he thinks about often. He decides that if the boat never returns that it means his father received it. The boat doesn’t come back. From then on, on special days, he and his mother send a boat off to his father. Buckley’s boats get better and better. Then on his birthday, Buckley forgets to put the note on his boat that says that it’s for his father and how much he loves him. Buckley heads inside to find paper for the note and discovers that his mother has been collecting all of the boats Buckley has sent to his father. So when Buckley sends his birthday boat out onto the ocean, he’s made one big change.

Bagley’s book grapples with some huge issues like grief and loss but it does so in a way that allows children to approach the situation at their own level. It never forces emotions onto the reader, instead making those emotions much more intense by having characters who internalize much of their grief. The use of boats to send a message is beautiful and moving in itself. The fact that the mother is collecting them, yet allowing her son his own grieving process is also very special.

The artwork in the book is done with pen and watercolor. It offers so much detail, creating a setting that is rich and warm. It suits the story so well, giving the reader a chance to realize on their own that the mother is also sad and grieving in her own way even while supporting her young son and protecting him. The natural setting is awash in watercolors, giving it flow and a luminous quality that lets light shine from the sky and ocean too.

Grief and loss are made beautiful and tangible in this picture book that offers such grace and nurturing. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.

Last Leaves Falling by Sarah Benwell

The Last Leaves Falling by Sarah Benwell (InfoSoup)

Sora has ALS, a disease that will slowly ravage his muscles and eventually kill him. There is no cure and no slowing the disease’s progression. Sora’s mother takes care of him and he spends his days at home, unwilling to leave and expose himself and his mother to the pitying gazes of strangers as she pushes him in his wheelchair. Then Sora joins an online chat room for Kyoto teens and after lurking for awhile, accidentally posts a very big scream to one of the rooms. Some people reach out to him and he becomes online friends with two of them, Mai and Kaito. His mother thinks they are friends from school, and she insists that she meet them too. But Sora hasn’t revealed his diagnosis to them at all, pretending instead to be a regular school-attending teen online. What will happen when they discover his illness? Will be begin to treat him differently just like everyone else?

Benwell has written a stunning read in this teen novel set in Kyoto, Japan. The setting is beautiful and a sense of Japan runs through the entire novel, making sure that western readers will never lose the sense of the setting. Benwell grapples with many issues here and yet the book is intently focused on Sora and his journey. Sora wants answers to questions that have none, like why people treat those with disabilities differently and what happens to you after you die. With those issues weaving throughout the book, Benwell also offers up a look at a devastating disease and its effect but also still reminds us all the it is each day that matters and the small things that delight.

The three teen characters are very well drawn. There is Sora, the central character and a boy who is serious and studious. He searches for deep answers and has lots of time alone to think. Yet he is still approachable, friendly and caring, never becoming a stereotype of any kind. Mai is a girl who loves art but is unable to explain to her mother that she’d rather be an artist than a lawyer. Through her reaction to meeting Sora for the first time, Benwell offers one view of courage and the willingness to try again. Kaito is a boy who loves coding and computers, but struggles to do it as well as he would like. He is impatient and clever. The two teens learn much from Sora, but not right away allowing them the time and space to be truly motivated by Sora.

This is a powerful novel that speaks to the beauty of life and calls teens to make the most of their dreams. Have your tissues ready! Appropriate for ages 12-16.

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.

Lost in the Sun by Lisa Graff

Lost in the Sun by Lisa Graff

Trent can’t manage to move on from last year when a tragic accident ended with another boy dead. Trent lost not only all of his friends because of it but also finds himself unable to play the sports he loved, like baseball. At the same time, Trent is unable to control his anger, even if he puts his most disturbing thoughts down on paper in drawings. It helps a bit, but he continues to have problems getting angry at everything and everyone. It all just proves that he is entirely the messed up kid that everyone things he is already. Fallon enters Trent’s live as they head to middle school. She is a girl who loves baseball movies, has a similar sense of humor, and has clearly also survived a tragedy which left her with a scarred face. Fallon becomes Trent’s closest friend, but one burst of anger may end that too, taking away the only good thing he has left.

Graff does such a beautiful job in this middle grade novel. She creates in Trent a truly complex character, one that readers will need time to understand. Trent is at his heart a boy dealing with death and loss and his own role in it, including showing a lot of self-hatred. So in that way, he is an entirely understandable character, one that is sympathetic. Then there is the angry Trent, who loses control, says horrible things, and lashes out. That part of his personality is hard to like, making him at times a character who is far from heroic. At the same time, this is the same person, likable one moment and the next impossible to like at all.

Graff captures the loss of control that comes with flashing red anger, the words that flow out of control, and the way that it feels in the body. Readers will completely understand those zings of anger and the shame that follows if you lash out. Graff also shows a path forward from being isolated and angry, a way to find people to help you even if you have lashed out at them earlier. It is a powerful story of redemption, of learning to return to who you really are, and of self forgiveness.

Beautifully written, this book is an amazing look at powerful emotions and the equal power of watering plants, breathing deeply and playing baseball. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC received from Philomel Books.

I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest

I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest

Released May 26, 2015.

This is the first YA novel by Priest, a well-known fantasy author for adults, and it’s a treat. May and Libby have been friends for years, the best of friends after meeting in fifth grade on a playground. The two of them wrote comics together about Princess X, a katana-wielding heroine. But then one day, Libby was gone, dead after a car crash from a bridge. Three years later, May has returned to their hometown and notices an image of a princess holding a katana on a sticker, a sticker that is brand new. May tracks down the image to a web comic where she realizes there are real similarities to the story that she and Libby had created. How can that be? And how strange is it that some of the stories seem to have messages only May could understand hidden inside of them?

There is a real joy in finding a book that does digital life so very well. The online elements of the story and the web comic are clear and make perfect sense. The hacking and dark net also work well in the way they are portrayed where there is information to be found but often it’s not legal to access it. That aspect alone, so often mismanaged in novels, is worth this read. But add to that a determined friend who quickly believes that her dead friend is still alive, an online and real life quest for information, horrible bad guys, and the exploration of Seattle both above and underground. It’s a book that is a searing fast read thanks to its pacing and the need to find out the truth.

The online comics are shared as comic inserts in the book, and were not completed in the galley that I have. The first couple of comics were available and add to the drama of the book. The mix of words and images works very well here with Priest using it both to move the story forward and to show the drama and appeal of the comic itself.

Smartly written with great characters and an amazing quest for the truth, this book is satisfying, surprising and impressive. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from ARC received from Arthur A. Levine Books.

dead i know

The Dead I Know by Scot Gardner

Aaron has just gotten a job at a funeral home with a man who is happy to give him all sorts of opportunities like a new suit, help with getting a driver’s license, and even invites him to eat meals with his family. But Aaron has too much to hide to trust his new boss. Mam is slipping deeper and deeper into dementia, often forgetting who Aaron is. The two of them live together in a camper where their neighbors are violent. Aaron also has a recurring nightmare that happens every time he falls asleep, so he tries not to sleep. When he inevitably does, he sleepwalks. As Aaron finds stability in his job with death, his tenuous control of his life starts to fall apart. The question is when Aaron will be able to face the truth of his past and whether it will be before it destroys him entirely.

Brilliant. This winner of the 2012 Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year for Older Readers is an amazing read. Gardner creates a tense mystery yes, one that keeps the pages turning. At the same time though, the book is immensely poignant as a young man learns to trust others, figures out that sometimes people just do good for others for no other reason, and starts to trust himself too. It is a story of a person realizing that they are good at something, seeing a future where there was none, and finally being able to see their past clearly, dealing with the things they buried long ago.

Aaron is an incredible hero at least in part because he is so very human. From his lack of speech to the depth of his thoughts, he is trapped in his own head much of the time. As he works with the death around him, handling dead bodies, attending funerals, and putting together caskets, he finds that the dead are not the problem. It is the emotions of the living that are too difficult for him to handle, and that includes his own.  The secondary characters are equally well drawn, with no one as a caricature, even the police officers.

A beautiful book, one that is tragic and hopeful all at once, that combines death and life into one amazing read. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

question of miracles

The Question of Miracles by Elana K. Arnold

Iris and her family have just moved to Corvallis, Oregon where Iris longs for sunshine and warm weather but is constantly faced with falling rain. Iris is struggling with the death of her best friend and has very little interest in making new friends or exploring her new town. Iris meets Boris and the two slowly become friends despite the fact that Boris is a messy eater, breaths through his mouth all the time, and wants Iris to play Magic all the time. But Boris is also fascinating to Iris because his birth could have been a real miracle that the Vatican is investigating. Iris wants to know how some people get miracles and others don’t. And what’s with the haunting presence she feels in the cupboard under the stairs where her best friend’s tennis racket rests? Is it possible that there is another miracle about to happen and Iris will be able to contact her friend?

Arnold does a simply beautiful job of writing this novel. Her crafting of Iris’ world and family is done with a gentleness and detail that is inspired. And through it all, readers will feel the chill of the constantly falling rain, the loneliness of the tennis racket under the stairs, and the sorrow that leads Iris to fall asleep early often. Arnold also shows in imagery over and over again the impermanence of things. From snow angels that are stepped on to eggs that don’t hatch, she crafts moments of fragility that show the uncertainty of life.

At the same time, she uses intense moments of comfort and being together with others that are warming and stand brightly against the cold wet weather that Iris finds herself trapped in. Those moments show such hope for Iris in a way that is tangible and realistic. Arnold also allows readers to see Oregon through Iris’ eyes for the most part. While there are these moments of light and warmth, snacks and hot chocolate, readers will start to see the beauty of Oregon and the wonder of the rain only when Iris herself starts to lift out of grief. The entire process is done over time and very realistically.

Beautiful writing that is poetic and filled with imagery yet easy to read and understand, this book will speak to fans of Kevin Henkes. Appropriate for ages 9-12

Reviewed from library copy.

fourteenth goldfish

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

Released August 26, 2014.

Eleven-year-old Ellie loves doing puzzles, because the pieces fit together so neatly.  She doesn’t like change at all, like the way that her best friend Brianna never talks with her anymore.  She lives with her mother in a tiny house with the garage filled with costumes from her job directing high school theater.  Her mother wants her to find her own passion, but Ellie isn’t sure that she has one.  Then something very strange happens, and her grandfather comes to live with them.  But he’s not really himself, instead he’s thirteen years old again!  Now Ellie has a “cousin” Melvin who goes to school with her but dresses, talks and thinks just like her grandfather.  Could he really have found the key to eternal youth?  This is the classic story of growing up, mixed with someone who is trying to grow down.

Holm’s signature light touch is a large part of the success of this novel.  Dealing with big issues like aging, death, and growing up, Holm manages to keep the tone light enough to make the reading great fun.  She mixes science into the story, clearly displaying her own interest in the subject, but also making sure that the science is just as readable as the story.

She populates her story with great characters from the dramatic mother to Ellie herself who readers will relate to quickly and easily.  Melvin is my favorite character in the book, written for pure delight as a great mix of teen boy and aging man.  In particular, I love that Holm kept him wearing the same clothes, talking to his daughter in the same way, and relating with teens he meets as if he didn’t resemble them in the least.  He’s a brilliant character, a wonderful grandfather, and profoundly funny.

Grab this as a great book to share in a classroom, it has lots to discuss but is immensely readable and serves as a clever entry point to science fiction reading.  Also, get this into the hands of Holm fans who are ready for something beyond Babymouse.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Random House and Edelweiss.

vanishing season

The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson

After her mother lost her job in Chicago, Maggie and her parents move to Door County, Wisconsin to a home they have inherited.  Just as they move to the peninsula, teen girls start to disappear and are found floating in the water.  Maggie misses her best friend and all of the activity of Chicago, but she is also taken in by the quiet and the beauty of Door County.  She quickly makes friends with the unusual girl next door, Pauline, who is beautiful, wealthy but also ignores both those facts and is downright childlike most of the time.  There is also Liam, a boy desperately in love with Pauline, though Pauline just wants to remain friends forever.  Maggie enters their world of canoe rides, building saunas in the woods, bonfires and marshmallows, that is interrupted as the winter comes with more deaths of teen girls.  Soon a curfew is imposed and no one is allowed to travel on their own.  Maggie can still hang out with Liam and Pauline, but the isolated peninsula begins to become even more separated from the rest of the world.  Add to this a voice in the novel that speaks of death, of being dead, and you have a haunting teen read.

Anderson’s prose is incredible.  She has written a book where it is all about isolation, winter, and death.  Yet at the same time it is rather desperately and fragilely about life too.  There is warmth, first love, beautiful friendships, and the wonder of nature.  It is a novel of contrasts, one that hints at a ghost story but is not overtaken by it.  It is a book about love, but it moves beyond that as well, turning to life and death eventually.

As I said, Anderson’s writing is beautiful.  She captures moments with a delicacy and poignancy that makes even the smallest moments of life spectacular.  Here is one example from Page 61 in the digital version of the ARC:

If I could show you the lives of the people below me – the colors of what they all feel heading into this chilling, late fall – they’d be green and purple and red, leaking out through the roofs, making invisible tracks down the roads.

She plays with perspectives in the novel.  Maggie’s story is told in third person, while the voice of the ghost, as seen in the quote above, is told in first person.  Anderson is not afraid to create a book filled with tiny pieces that come together into one full work by the end.  She writes without the need for action to carry the book forward, instead capturing a place and a time with an eye for detail and discovery.

Haunting and wildly beautiful, this quiet book is not for everyone but those who love it will love it desperately.  Appropriate for ages 14-16.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and HarperTeen.

secret hum of a daisy

The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer

Grace can’t stand being near the river, because that’s where she found her mother’s body.  It was right after they had argued about moving once again.  Grace wanted to stay where she finally felt at home, but her mother wanted to move again.  Now Grace has been sent to live with her mother’s mother, a grandmother she has never known.  She only wants to return to the family she and her mother had been staying with last, but she has to come up with a plan to escape.  In the meantime, Grace starts to find clues to a treasure hunt, similar to the ones her mother did for her every time they moved to a new town.  Is it her mother creating a final path for her daughter to find a home?  Or could it be that Grace is just seeing patterns where there are none?

Holczer shows great depth and richness in this her first book.  In this character-driven novel, she excels at the relationships she builds between her vividly drawn characters.   Grace is a character in search of a place to call home, but unable to see a home when it is right in front of her and unable to register the love being shown her.  She is complicated in a very organic way, her reactions honest and true.  The same is true of the grandmother character who radiates frankness but also regret for what happened over the years with her daughter.  She is a very complex adult character, particularly for a book for middle grade students. 

Holczer’s writing itself is straight-forward, allowing a sturdy framework for these character to relate to each other within.  The writing rings with confidence and Holczer asks deep questions about death, what dead people can communicate to the living, and what makes a family.  The answers are not simple and are not easily arrived at.  They come about very naturally and one must wait to see what the truths are and where the characters will arrive in this beautifully paced novel.

Rich, organic and special, this middle grade novel offers us all a view of what a second chance at family can be.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Penguin.

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.

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