Tag Archive: grief


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.

dear hank williams

Dear Hank Williams by Kimberly Willis Holt

Tate’s class has been told that they are doing a pen pal project and they can either be assigned pen pals or pick them. Tate has just the right person to write to, Hank Williams, who is an emerging star in 1948. Tate tells him all about her life in Rippling Creek, Louisiana where she lives with her Uncle Jolly, Aunt Patty Cake and her little brother Frog. At first, Tate tells Hank Williams that her parents are well known and gone because of their work, her father as a photographer and her mother in the movies. But as she continues to write to them, she reveals the truth of her family life where her father has disappeared and her mother is doing time in jail. There is one final secret that Tate can’t face at all and it will take all of her courage to admit to it.

Holt writes a story of a girl who has concocted a life of dreams for herself. Tate is unfailingly positive about many things. Even when she talks about her mother being in prison, she focuses on the fact that her mother is in an elite singing group while there. Her life with her uncle and aunt is stable and lovely, filled with small moments that demonstrate their love for her, like finding a way to hear her mother sing on the radio and discovering just the right dog at just the right time.  Holt gives Tate all the time she needs to face her different truths. And the result is surprising and tender.

Tate is a marvelous character. She is quickly proven untrustworthy as she admits early in the novel to lying about her mother and father. Yet there is something so down-to-earth about her too that readers will somehow trust her despite all of this. Perhaps it is the details of her life that make that work, and the way that she hides truths even from herself. It is a delicate balance and one that Holt does very well.

Young readers will love this book for its heart and the beautiful spark of its main character. Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt and Co.

way home looks now

The Way Home Looks Now by Wendy Wan-Long Shang (InfoSoup)

The author of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu returns with a new novel for young readers. Peter loves baseball just like all of the others in his family, including his mother who is a huge Pittsburgh Pirates fan. His older brother is amazing at baseball and will occasionally join in the neighborhood game and hit homeruns with his favorite bat. But when tragedy strikes their family, Peter stops playing entirely. He can’t seem to find joy in it anymore and starts to spend most of his time alone. As Peter’s mother descends deeply into grief, rarely eating or speaking and never leaving the living room, Peter decides that maybe baseball can inspire her to return to normal. So Peter tries out for a Little League team that his father reluctantly agrees to coach. Soon baseball is once again a huge part of their family, but can it heal the wounds left behind by loss?

Shang has written a book that will appeal to children who adore baseball but also invites in those who may not be fans. This is not a sports book, but rather a novel that features baseball and the catalyst that sports can be for a family to rally around. At the same time, Shang shows the appeal of baseball in particular with its mathematical logic, fascinating trick plays, and the effect that being on a team can have on different kids.

The central family in this novel is Chinese American. Shang weaves details of that heritage throughout the novel. It is more about the reverberations through generations of concepts like honoring your elders and showing respect in very tangible ways. The father in the book had been a distant figure and suddenly becomes that sole caretaker for Peter and his little sister. That transition is shown in all of its difficulty, made even more difficult because of the strict nature of their relationship. These complexities add a lot of depth to the novel, making it about so much more than baseball.

A deep look at grief, loss and baseball, this novel features strong writing and great characters of diversity. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic Press.

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.

here in the garden

Here in the Garden by Briony Stewart

Released March 1, 2015.

This import from Australia tells the seasonal story of a boy and his garden.  A boy spends time in his backyard, but is missing someone.  The wind blows, he plants seedlings in the garden, and dreams of his special someone joining his side.  When the rain comes, he watches from the back steps, still missing the one who would love to see the garden turn so green.  Summer comes with its sunshine and heat and the boy continues to feel his loss but begins to realize that he can still be in touch with the one he misses by being out in nature and enjoying the same things they used to do together.

Stewart beautifully allows the book to speak to anyone who has experienced loss.  In the end though, this book is clearly about the loss of a pet rabbit, the same one who is pictured at the boy’s side throughout the story.  That reveal is done tenderly and gently, clearly tying the boy to nature and to his memories of all the times they had together.  It’s beautifully and caringly presented.

Stewart’s art is washed in watercolors, colors that sweep and blow across the page, evoking the movement of air and the freshness of outdoors.  Though the book is filled with loneliness, the art remains resolutely lovely and cheery.  Even the one in the dark of night is filled with a light that illuminates.

A quiet story of grief, loss and the healing power of nature, this is a lovely little foreign title.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Kane Miller.

Review: Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

belzhar

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Jam has been taken by her family to The Wood Barn, a boarding school in Vermont for fragile teens.  After losing her British boyfriend, Reeve, Jam has been unable to function at all.  She just wants to be left alone with her grief and loss.  Jam spends her days sleeping and thinking about Reeve and how in only a few weeks their relationship grew into love only to have him die suddenly.  At her new school, Jam finds herself selected for a small and exclusive English class where they will read one author for the entire semester.  They are also given journals to record their feelings and ideas, old books that look ancient and valuable.  As Jam starts to write in hers for the first time, she is transported to a world where Reeve is still alive, where they can spend a brief time together, and where they can relive their experiences with one another.  All of the students in the class are having this experience and together they decide to only write in the journals twice a week to make them last, because no one knows what happens to this strange world of the journal when the pages run out.  By the end of their experiences in the place they call Belzhar, Jam must face the truths of her loss and her grief.

Wolitzer has earned acclaim as the author of adult literary novels and her short works of fiction.  Those skills really show here as she turns what could have been a novel about teenage love and loss into a beautiful and compelling work of magical realism.  When I started the novel, I had not expected the journals to be anything more than paper, so that inclusion of a fantasy element thoroughly changed the novel for me.  It made it richer, more of an allegory, and lifted it to another level. 

Jam, the protagonist, is a girl who does not open up readily.  The book is told in her voice and yet readers will not know her thoroughly until the end of the book.  It is because of Wolitzer’s skill as a writer that readers may not even realize until the twist comes that the book has even more to reveal.  Jam is also not particularly likeable, and I appreciate that.  Instead she is lonely, prickly, eager to please and complex.  That is what makes the novel work.

This is a particularly deep and unique novel for teens that reveals itself slowly and wondrously on the page.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from copy received from Dutton.

Review: Wildlife by Fiona Wood

wildlife

Wildlife by Fiona Wood

Set in Australia, this teen novel features the first person voices of two sixteen-year-old girls experiencing a semester in a school wilderness camp.  Sib has been in this school for a long time, so it surprises everyone, including herself, when she is selected as a model for a billboard and modeling campaign.  Suddenly instead of ignoring her, everyone is paying attention to her.  That includes Ben Capaldi, the cutest and most popular boy in school.  Sib has no idea how to deal with this new interest, but her best friend is very willing to guide her, perhaps too willing.  Lou is a new girl in school and is recovering from the loss of her boyfriend in an accident a year ago.  She has no interest in joining into school life or making new friends.  Instead she wants to be left alone, connect with her old friends, grieve and try to figure a way out of her extra counseling sessions.  But even as she walls herself away from the others at school, she finds herself getting drawn into the drama and life happening around her.  This story of two very different and equally compelling young women dives deep into romance, sexuality and friendship.

Wood has made recent news through her frank depiction of teen female sexuality.  This book stands out clearly with its positive but also nuanced and honest look at one girl’s first sexual experience.  With moments of humor throughout, the sex is shown with lots of heat, tons of desire, and then reality as well.  In the end, the character decides what is right for her, not what is right for all teens, but there is no shaming, no despair, no regret, just decisions going forward.  This is sex as teen girls experience it, done with intelligence and care.

The reason the sex in the book works so well is that Wood has created two main characters who are themselves intelligent, caring and fascinating.  Sib is dealing with suddenly breaking the role that she had been cast in, and being thrust into popularity for something that she sees no value in, modeling.  It’s a deft combination of feminism and pop culture.  She also has a manipulative best friend, a character who is beautifully drawn and one that readers will adore to dislike.  Lou too is a complex character with her grief but also her growing interest in those around her.  Her internal voice is wonderfully wry and funny, showing a spirit and intensity well before she reveals it to the world around her. 

Set in a clever parent-free wilderness setting, this book is smart, funny and just what fans of Rainbow Rowell are looking for.  Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

nest

Nest by Esther Ehrlich

11-year-old Chirp has grown up in the 1970s exploring the coasts and woods of Cape Cod and particularly watching the birds and learning all she can about them.  Her home life has been stable and warm, but now things are shifting.  Her dancer mother is no longer able to dance because of the pain in her leg.  She’s also having balance problems.  The family tries to continue as normal but when her mother is diagnosed with MS, it throws her mother’s mental state into chaos.  Unable to deal with the diagnosis, her mother falls into a deep depression.  Through it all, Chirp is slowly making friends with the boy who lives in her neighborhood, someone she had always feared in the past.  As their friendship grows, her family falls further and further into distress while Chirp fights to keep her own personal equilibrium.  Unable to cope any longer, Chirp and her new friend form a desperate plan.

Ehrlich captures a family both on the brink of crisis and then moving fully into complete dysfunction.  Through it all, the characters react as humans rather than stereotypes.  Readers will be caught up in the turbulence of these lives, the hope as things seem to improve, and the devastation as they continue to fail.  Ehrlich guides the story with a steady hand, allowing the characters to come to life on the page and react as honestly as they can.  She also makes sure that this is shown through Chirp’s point of view, something that both protects young readers but also allows the sudden changes to be even more powerful.

Chirp and her humor and unique point of view keep this book from sliding too far into tragedy.  She is inventive, creative and has her own passions for birds and nature that crop up throughout the book.  Joey, her new friend, has a complicated family life and also a spirit all his own.  He is a male character we rarely see in books, a boy who turns away from becoming a bully to become a friend, all on his own without adult intervention.  Her family is complexly drawn too, from the older sister who wants to escape to a different family to her father who is desperate to keep his family together and continues to be loving in the most difficult of times.

Written with a strong new voice, this debut novel is filled with rich characters who come together just to survive.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.

elsa and the night

Elsa and the Night by Jons Mellgren

This strange and beautiful picture book is translated from the original Swedish.  It is the story of Elsa who discovers the Night underneath her sofa one night just as she is counting the raisins in her cereal.  So she tucks the Night into a cake tin and gives him some raisins too.  Then she hides the cake tin down in the basement.  With the Night trapped, day continues on and one without end.  Finally, Elsa takes the Night out of his cake tin and starts to talk about how much she misses her best friend, an elephant named Olaf, who she met after a shipwreck.  The explains how the two of them lived together and that now he is gone.  About how she then moved to a lighthouse and stayed awake in the light night after night and has not slept for 30 years.  The Night listens and then goes with her to visit Olaf’s grave and finally to lift her up and take her to her bed to sleep.

Filled with poetry, the text in this book is powerful.  The story winds around, moving from the trapping of night into Elsa’s story of loss and finally to resolution.  It is not linear, but an exploration of emotions and grief.  It is a journey that is glowing, gentle and filled with lovely moments.  In particular when the Night goes around and gathers up the sleepy people along with Elsa, there is such tenderness and love in that moment. 

Mellgren’s art is modern and filled with bold graphical elements.  The cut paper art is complex at times and simple in others, playing with light and dark as well as different shapes.  the way that Night changes the page as he enters it is beautifully handled, his darkness spilling around him but able to be seen right through. 

This unique story is luminous and impressive and will make a great bedtime story for children and parents who enjoy foreign picture books that aren’t the normal bedtime read.  Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from library copy.

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