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.
Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me by Daniel Beaty, illustrated by Bryan Collier
Every morning a young boy plays a game with his father. His father knock knocks at the door and the boy pretends to be asleep until his dad is right next to him and they give each other a huge hug. But then one day, his father isn’t there to play the game any more. His father isn’t there to get him ready for school either. Morning pass with no father. The boy thinks that maybe his father is just there when the boy is at school, so he writes him a letter about how much he misses his dad and how much he expected to learn from him. The boy waits for months and nothing happens, then one day he gets a letter from his father. A letter that speaks to their separation but also one that encourages him to continue to live and knock on new doors.
Beaty’s text is deep hearted and searingly honest. As his author’s note says, he had an incarcerated father who had been his primary caregiver as a young child. So Beaty has revealed much in this picture book about the gaping hole left from a missing parent. Yet the genius of this book is that it will work for any child missing a parent for any reason. And I adore a book with such a strong connection between father and child. Beaty manages to convey that in a few pages, leaving the rest of the book to reveal the mourning and grief of loss but also a hope that shines on each page.
Collier’s illustrations shine as well. Done in a rich mix of paint and collage, they are filled with light as it plays across faces, dances against buildings, and reveals emotions. His illustrations are poetry, filled with elephants, showing the boy growing into a man, and the man turning into a father. They are illustrations that tell so much and are worth exploring again after finishing the book.
This book belongs in my top picks for 2013. It is beautifully done both in writing and illustrations. I’m hoping it is honored by the Coretta Scott King awards and I’d love to see a Caldecott as well. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
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.
Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff
Mila is spending her Easter break traveling from London to the United States with her father. They plan to visit one of his oldest friends, Matthew, and his family. But days before they are to set off, they hear that Matthew has gone missing and his wife has no idea where he might be but urges them to come anyway. Mila has long known that she has exceptional perception skills: she can tell when someone is pregnant before they even know, can read emotions quickly and can easily gather clues from a room. So when they arrive, she quickly realizes several things about Matthew and his family. As she gets closer to solving the mystery, it all gets more complicated and soon Mila has to even question whether her father is being honest with her.
Rosoff writes so beautifully. She takes time here in the book to create a family dynamic in Mila’s father and mother that is strong and buoyant. She also carefully builds the background of Mila’s life, so that readers will understand what a different situation Mila finds herself in. A theme of translation runs through the entire novel. Mila’s father is a translator of books, Mila has to translate to American English, Mila can understand the language of objects and read nuances into them, and there is also the language of pain and loss that permeates the book. It is a theme that unites this book from one of a road trip into a quest.
Mila is a very intriguing character. She is both wildly perceptive and then also unaware at times. All of the characters in the book are fully developed and well drawn. Her parents are real people with their own pasts and foibles. I particularly enjoyed the almost brittle portrayal of Matthew’s abandoned wife who seems very one dimensional at first, but then at the end shows more of herself in a subtle way.
A virtuoso book that is rather quiet, very thoughtful and filled with insights just like Mila herself. Appropriate for ages 13-15.
Reviewed from library copy.
Will & Whit by Laura Lee Gulledge
The author of Page by Paige returns with another superb graphic novel. Will has suffered a tragedy and now fear the dark, since she sees the shadows of those she has lost within them. Her hobby is to create lamps out of found objects, keeping the dark at bay. Then Hurricane Whitney roars in and takes away the electricity entirely so that Will is left in a complete blackout. Happily, she is surrounded by great friends who are just as creative as she is. There is even an arts carnival being created. Now Will just has to face her fears, in the darkness.
Done in black-and-white, this graphic novel plays nicely with light and dark. The entire background of the pages change from the bright white to pure black once the power goes out in the story. Gulledge’s story embraces creativity and also features female characters who are real and honest. Gulledge also nicely uses metaphor in the story, showing shadows coming towards Will who are human shaped. As that part of the story is resolved, readers will notice the changes in the shadows around Will, a visual harbinger of real change.
Get this into the hands of those who enjoyed Page by Paige as well as other teens who are creative and touch romantic. Appropriate for ages 13-16.
Reviewed from library copy.
Fat Angie by E. E. Charlton-Trujillo
Angie has hit rock bottom. She tried to kill herself in front of the entire school and now she just wants to make it through each day. She numbs herself with lots of junk food, eating her way past the pain of her sister being held hostage in Iraq and her adopted brother being cruel to her both in public and at home. Her mother is just anxious for Angie to be normal or at least to appear normal to everyone. But Angie’s entire world changes when the new girl is nice to her. KC Romance is not from Dryfalls, Ohio and it is obvious. She is innately cool, something that Angie has never even tried to pretend to be. Best of all, KC sees past the fat and the walls that Angie puts up to the real Angie, the one that Angie herself has never really known was there. Now Angie is inspired to do more and that means big changes both inside and out.
This teen novel deals with all sorts of issues, all focused through Angie herself. There is suicide, binge eating, being overweight, a sister missing in Iraq, cutting, and sexuality. One might think that it all doesn’t fit into a single novel, but it does thanks to the incredible character of Angie. The author writes with a wonderful snarky voice yet one that is ultimately human and smart. She is entirely herself even though she isn’t sure who that is.
I particularly enjoyed the snippets of therapy that are shared along with the therapist’s notes. This is the sort of humor that pervades this book. Yet there is incredible sadness within it as well. There is grief that others don’t share, mean girls that are beyond cruel, and a family that doesn’t try any longer. Angie has a lot to be angry and sad about, but somehow she rises beyond that. Most remarkable of all though is that in this book, she does it herself. And along the way, she helps others rise too.
Beautifully written, dark and wildly funny, this book will have you crying, raging and cheering. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
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.
A Certain October by Angela Johnson
Johnson continues to write powerful books in a short format. Here we meet Scotty, a teenage girl who thinks of herself as rather bland, like tofu. The people around her seem more vibrant and complex like her little brother who has autism and enjoys trains, being naked, and eating cookies. Her best friends too seem to be more interesting to Scotty. Then in October everything changes because of a train accident. Scotty’s little brother is injured severely and another boy is killed. Scotty feels responsible for both of them, though she barely knew the other boy. This is a story that takes the small details of life and then shows how a single event can tear through, changing life forever.
Johnson writes like a poet, using unique symbolism to make her points. Scotty sees herself as tofu, bland until someone else adds flavor. Readers though will immediately understand that that is how Scotty views herself, not how the she actually is. Instead Scotty is an intriguing mix of teen angst, intelligence, and a big heart.
Johnson writes her characters in real life. They all read as real people, not even the parents becoming stereotypical. The teen boys are just as human as the main character, treating the girls with respect and friendship. It’s a refreshing change to see male secondary characters who are more than a stereotype too. When Scotty is grieving, the power of family and friendship together is obvious.
With its dynamic cover and short length, this book is sure to be picked up by teen readers. Here they will find a strong heroine who is intensely and utterly real. Appropriate for ages 13-15.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
What Came from the Stars by Gary D. Schmidt
Valorim is a world torn by war. The evil Lord Mondus is threatening everything that they hold dear, but one young man, Young Waeglim, manages to save it all. He crafts the Chain of Valorim Art and flings it away into space, out of the reach of Lord Mondus and his threatening hordes of O’Mondim. A young man on earth finds the chain and wears it. His name is Tommy and his life is changed when he wears the chain, creating a new life from one devastated by the lost of his mother. He starts to be able to do amazing art by using ‘”thrimble” and making it so lifelike it moves. He speaks in a strange language, adding words that no one can find in any dictionary. But most of all, he knows he has to save his home from the development that threatens it. It was a place his mother loved, and one that means everything to his little sister and his father. This is a book about loss and grief and yes, the universe too.
Schmidt amazed me here. It is a book that plays with the motifs of science fiction, brings them to life, creates a world, and then… you just need to read this book. For me, the ambiguous nature of the story itself as well as the ending means that it has a myriad of possible readings. It could be just about loss of a parent and coping mechanisms, but I think it is about so much more. It is about the power of art, the beauty of family, and the wonder of possibilities.
Perhaps my favorite part of the book is the way that the world of Valorim and the earth world are separated by writing styles. The earth world reads almost as any other modern children’s book. It is peppered with Valorim words, but mostly straight forward. The Valorim sections are flowery, lovely and wild reading. They remind me most of the Jabberwocky poem from Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll. It contains the same adventuresome spirit, the danger, the violence, but mostly the wordsmithing.
I adored this book. It would be ideal for classroom discussion because everyone is certain to have taken it in their own unique way. I’d also suggest it for a perfect book to read on your own and discover. It’s tremendous. Appropriate for ages 12-14.
Reviewed from library copy.
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.