Tag: grief

Review: You Can’t See the Elephants by Susan Kreller

You Cant See the Elephants by Susan Kreller

You Can’t See the Elephants by Susan Kreller, translated by Elizabeth Gaffney (InfoSoup)

Mascha has been sent to spend the summer at her grandparent’s house. Their neighborhood is perfect in many ways with neat yards, gardens and neighborly gatherings. When Mascha meets Julia and Max at the playground, she is desperate for friends. There’s not a lot for a 13-year-old to do. Soon though Mascha realizes that something is wrong and then witnesses for herself Julia and Max being abused by their father. Mascha tells her grandparents and even other neighbors, but no one is willing to do anything. So Mascha decides to step in herself and stop the abuse.

This German novel has already won several international awards. The writing is haunting and beautiful. My quibble with the translation is that I wish it had maintained its German setting rather than being moved to the United States. It reads as a European book and I’m not sure the story works as well with an American setting. But that is a minor factor in such a powerhouse of a book.

First, the setting in an upper-class community focused on image rather than real warmth is a cunning choice. It reveals the thin veneer of neighborliness, the unwillingness to look deeper at what could be happening, and the ability to turn away from the ugly truth to see only the good. Mascha herself is a brilliant heroine. Facing the death of her mother and sent to stay long term with her grandparents, she is not connected to this community at all. She sees the truth, speaks the truth and then is forced to find her own solution. And what a solution it is. It is clever but flawed, a plan only a child could produce. It is entirely believable and therefore a truly riveting read.

A great book, this novel about abuse, friendship and the importance of protecting the vulnerable in our world is one of the best of the year. It is startling, provocative and timely. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from copy received from G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.

Review: The Plan by Alison Paul

The Plan by Alison Paul

The Plan by Alison Paul, illustrated by Barbara Lehman (InfoSoup)

Told in words that shift by one letter from page to page, this picture book is a lesson in imagination from its structure to its subject matter. A little girl makes a plan to take a plane up into space to Saturn. She lives on a farm with her dog who accompanies her everywhere. As they work on the farm, she discovers a key that unlocks her father’s photo album. There she discovers that he and her mother were pilots on The Mighty Comet. So the girl shares her plan with her father. They all work together to restore the airplane, allowing themselves time to grieve for the loss of her mother, and then all take off into the air together.

Paul demonstrates incredible restraint and control in the text of this book. Changing just one letter from page to page could result in a book that is stagnant, but instead this book explores and the story develops in a natural way. The simple text allows readers to fill in the story, to discover the key and what it unlocks, and to participate in the shared adventure. The component of the mother’s death is deftly handled, subtle and quiet.

With such simple text, the illustrations by Lehman really tell the full story. Done in watercolor, gouache and ink, they too share the quiet wonder of the text. They are done in deep colors that shimmer on the page, inviting the reader to look closely and explore.

A brilliant picture book filled with word play that is easy to read and a story with beauty and depth. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (InfoSoup)

Suzy knows that things happen for a reason. She loves nature and all of the facts about it and the way that science makes sense. But when her best friend drowns, Suzy just can’t make sense of it. They had fought before Franny left on vacation and now there is no way for Suzy to fix that. Suzy retreats into silence, refusing to speak to her parents or to anyone at school. As Suzy searches for a reason, she discovers that Franny might have been stung by a jellyfish. It is up to Suzy to prove that that is what happened and to let everyone see that there was a cause for Franny’s death. Filled with natural wonder and tangible grief, this book is an elegant and powerful look at how one child copes with loss.

Benjamin writes about nature with such awe, sharing facts about animals as if they were precious jewels. The facts about jellyfish alone are profound and concerning, allowing readers to understand Suzy’s fascination with them. Yet though these facts are in the book, it is Suzy’s inability to cope with reality that shines. Her unwillingness to accept that death can be an accident without any reason at all will speak to all readers.

Suzy is a great character. Filled with a powerful and all-encompassing grief, she becomes silent and yet somehow does not withdraw from life. Instead her silence allows her time to be more creative, more thoughtful about the loss she has experienced even while she is in denial about what has happened. Benjamin also beautifully tackles the grieving process, mingling it with the difficulties of middle school. Filled with flashbacks about the changing friendship of Franny and Suzy, this book addresses the way that even best friends grow apart.

Beautiful and luminous, this book is a powerful look at grief, loss and the way that we process our lives. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Untwine by Edwidge Danticat

Untwine by Edwidge Danticat

Untwine by Edwidge Danticat (InfoSoup)

Giselle and Isabelle are identical teen twins on their way to Izzie’s concert at school when their car is crashed into and their lives changed forever. Giz wakes up in a hospital room, unable to speak or move. She can hear though and is in a semi-conscious state. That’s how she realizes that everyone thinks that she is Isabelle. People don’t mention her at all, avoiding the subject, but Giz is sure that she would know if Isabelle had died. Her parents eventually come to see her, both physically battered by the accident and with bruises, broken bones and casts. Trapped and unable to communicate, Giselle thinks about her past with her family, their strong ties to their Haitian heritage and the bond that she and her sister have always had.

Danticat is an award-winning author of several adult books. This is her debut YA title. Her writing is superb. Told in Giz’s voice, the prose lilts and dances like poetry. It weaves around the reader, creating moments of clarity and then as Giz reminisces about her family and sister lifting into pure emotion. Nothing is told, all is shown and there is a radiance to the entire novel that is sublime.

Giz is a strong heroine. Haitian-American, she is solidly connected to her heritage through her grandparents who still live in Haiti. It’s a joy to see a depiction of a family of color who are complex and far from stereotypical. Giz is a large part of this. Her voice is clearly her own, her upbringing affects everything around her, and being a person of color is at the core of this novel yet not at center stage. It is done with a delicate yet firm hand.

One of the most beautifully written teen novels of the year, this look at sisterhood, death, grief and family is hauntingly lovely. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic Press.

Review: Sonya’s Chickens by Phoebe Wahl

Sonyas Chickens by Phoebe Wahl

Sonya’s Chickens by Phoebe Wahl (InfoSoup)

Sonya was given three tiny chicks by her father. It was her job to take good care of them. At first, the chicks liked in the house in a cardboard box while Sonya’s parents fixed up the coop in the yard. Soon they grew into pullets and were living outside. They followed Sonya everywhere she went. She took good care of them, giving them food and water and cleaning out their coop. They grew into three large happy hens and started laying eggs. Then one night, Sonya was woken by squawking in the chicken coop. She headed outside and one of her chickens was no longer there, only two hens were up in the rafters hiding. Sonya’s father explained that a fox had gotten the hen and told her about why he would have taken her. Sonya and her family had a funeral for the hen and worked to repair the coop so that a fox could not get in again. Then the circle started once more when one of the eggs began to hatch.

Wahl embraces honesty about the death of pets and grief in this picture book. Beautifully told, the loss of the chicken may surprise some readers. It is handled with care and truth, the father in the story explaining that the fox has to hunt for his family in order to feed his kits. Sonya is allowed time to express her feelings, supported by her family. The ending of the book has a new chick joining Sonya’s flock and her willing to continue on despite the loss. It’s a lesson in resilience.

The illustrations in this picture book are impressive. Done with watercolor, collage and colored pencil, they are vibrant and richly colored. The images show a mixed-race family in a rural setting, something that isn’t seen enough in picture books. They have a great textural feel and also depict a fully-realized home and family with most of the pictures taking up an entire page with their rich colors.

An honest look at grief and loss of a pet, this picture book is a winner. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Marvels by Brian Selznick

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

The Marvels by Brian Selznick (InfoSoup)

Released September 15, 2015.

The author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret returns with his third book. In this novel that mixes his vivid artwork with longer passages of text, the focus is on one amazing family, The Marvels. It begins in the 18th century with a shipwreck where a boy survives the sinking of The Kraken and finds his way to London. Just as the ship was sinking, he had been participating in a play on board along with his brother who was killed in the wreck. So when he reached London, he found the Royal Theatre and people willing to take him in. Time passed and the boy turned into a man who one day finds a baby left on the theater doorstep. So begins a theatrical family until one generation does not want to be on stage anymore. Time turns again, now it is 1990 and the story is that of Joseph who has run away from boarding school to the home of his uncle whom he has never met. Looking through the windows of the home, it is as if a huge family has just left the room. But his uncle lives there alone. Odd noises filter through the house too, a bird sings where there is no bird and footsteps can be heard. As Joseph is allowed to stay, he discovers that he is living in a mystery and one that he must solve in order to understand his uncle.

This is another stunning novel from Selznick. Again it marries his art with his prose, both of which are beautiful and evocative. His art depicts the theater life and shows how like ship rigging the ropes all are. It shows art and family and irreconcilable differences. Then comes the prose where Selznick paints a picture of the uncle’s home with the same detail and care that he uses in his images. They come to life in a different but complementary way. It is stirring and beautiful to experience vivid depiction of two settings, one in text and the other in art. This results in a book that is visually arresting but also has prose that is worthy of celebrating and sinking into as well.

Joseph and his uncle are both very interesting characters. Both are rather isolated and lonely, finding their own space in the world. Both struggle to fit in, but also find ways that allow them to not have to change their own personality much at all. It is a book that looks at love and the various places you can find it in life as well as its power to transform. As the story unfolds, there are wonders and almost magic at work. This is an exploration of theater and performance too, a look at what is truth and what is real and an acknowledgement that theater can be both.

I was rapt when reading this novel. It is a treat to have a new Selznick to explore and this one lives up to his stellar reputation. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.

Review: Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley

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.