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.
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.
Never Ending by Martyn Bedford
Shiv is unable to live with her brother Declan’s death, particularly her own role in it. So she is sent to the Korsakoff Clinic where she hopes to be cured and be able to continue her life. Unable to see past her own guilt and loss, Shiv finds herself in an unusual clinic where she is first forced to focus on her brother and then forced to look directly at his death without turning away. She is joined in the clinic by several other teens who all lost people in different ways but all feel as responsible and guilty as Shiv does. As they are forced to see the truth of their loss, all of them react in different ways. When hope is highest though, the ground falls out below Shiv and she must figure out that saving someone else may be the answer to saving herself.
Bedford has created a very compelling read. He slowly reveals Shiv’s life before Declan’s death. Along the way, readers get to know Shiv and Declan and their warm and loving parents. They see directly what grief and loss do to people and the way their relationships are torn asunder. They also see how hard it is to return to life after such a loss. Bedford maintains a large level of complexity throughout the novel, moving into flashbacks and also showing Declan as a human rather than a lost angel. The relationship between the siblings is good until a gorgeous young man enters their lives and creates waves for both of them.
As the flashbacks to Declan’s final days continue, the tension in the book mounts. The pressure is also building in Shiv’s recovery as she starts to recover and then suffers setbacks. There are no easy answers here. Declan’s life as well as Shiv’s are complex. The therapy she undergoes is unusual but it is up to Shiv to really do the work of recovery.
Beautifully written and structured, this novel of recovery, pain and guilt weaves a mesmerizing web for the reader who is never quite sure how things are going to end. Appropriate for ages 15-17.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.
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.