Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt

Cover image for Just Like That

Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt (9780544084773)

In the summer of 1968, Meryl Lee’s best friend died. Her parents decided to give her a fresh start at St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for girls, a boarding school in Maine. Meryl Lee doesn’t fit in with the wealthy girls around her, finding all of the rules and expectations stifling. Meanwhile, Matt Coffin is also on the Maine coast, except he is living in a decrepit shanty trying to survive. He is on the run from a criminal gang whose leader murdered his best friend. Matt works on the fishing boats, earning just enough to feed himself and heat his small shanty. After Matt is attacked and nearly killed, the headmistress of St. Elene’s takes him in. They start to form a family along with one of the fishermen who takes Matt out on the water. Meryl Lee is also finding that she can make friends in different ways, though the blank of grief is often waiting to overtake her. Soon the two will meet, discover one another and find that they are drawn together in grief and hope.

Every new book by Schmidt is a delight. This one is a heart stealer of a book where readers will adore both Meryl Lee and Matt as well as the adults who care for them both. As Meryl learns again and again, friendship starts in a variety of different ways, as long as you are open to it. Readers will leave this book more open to discovering amazing people in their lives who were there all along.

The historical setting works particularly well to keep Matt able to stay hidden as long as he does. It also plays a role in events at St. Elene’s with staff getting into trouble for publicly expressing their political beliefs and the Vietnam War taking the brother of one of the girls who works at the school. Schmidt explores grief with a deep empathy and kindness but also with a cracking sense of humor at times.

Deeply sad, often lonely but also full of hope and friendship. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Clarion Books.

The Boy and the Gorilla by Jackie Azúa Kramer

Cover image for The Boy and the Gorilla

The Boy and the Gorilla by Jackie Azúa Kramer, illustrated by Cindy Derby (9780763698324)

In a sad, gray world, a huge gorilla appears. He joins a boy out in his mother’s garden. The two talk about the death of his mother, about how you know when someone is dead. The two spend time together, coloring, flying kites on the beach. The beach was one of his mother’s favorite places. The boy misses his mother’s pancakes and her reading books at bedtime. Sometimes he just wants to be alone. Other times, he wants to climb high into trees to see if he can reach his mother. The gorilla stays at his side throughout, while baking Mom’s special cookies, picking daisies in her garden and playing baseball. Eventually, the boy reached out to his father about how much he misses his mother. After holding father and son close, the gorilla moved off, heading elsewhere.

Kramer tells a gentle and sorrowful story here, where sadness and loss is embodied in a huge, purple and black gorilla. That gorilla shows such tenderness and such attention to the boy, keeping silent when needed, dashing up trees together, sitting and lingering with one another. The gorilla becomes more than loss, he becomes care and healing without pressure or timetable. The book reads in a series of linked scenes, the process not linear but complex with motion forward and back. It is not until the boy connects more with his father that progress is made, a new team formed.

The art by Derby is instrumental here. Her huge and furry gorilla appears out of the gray, his black and purple dark against the fog of loss. Color tones are used very effectively through her watercolors in the book, moving from the initial grays to more blues, eventually having touches of red and yellow, sunshine nearby. Towards the end of the book, the pages are aglow with light and hope.

A lovely and touching look at loss. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Candlewick.

The Bridge by Bill Konigsberg

The Bridge by Bill Konigsberg

The Bridge by Bill Konigsberg (9781338325034)

Two teens arrive at exactly the same time on the George Washington Bridge, planning to jump off. At the last minute, when he sees Tillie, Aaron decides not to jump, but Tillie does. Aaron now must find new ways to deal with his rising depression, struggles that he can’t admit to his father, even though his father is desperately to figure out what is going on with his son. Tillie’s family is devastated by their loss, particularly her little sister. Tillie, ignored by her adoptive father because she embarrassed him in one of her performances, is being cyberbullied by girls in her school, including one of her previous best friends. But wait, perhaps it was Aaron who jumped and Tillie survived. Or did they both jump? Or did they both stop themselves and find one another. This masterpiece of a novel looks at suicide, getting help, and the impact of loss.

Konigsberg takes one pivotal moment in the lives of two people and shows how it could be different given a slightly different reaction. How one person could be saved, or the other, or neither or both. He portrays two very different families, each struggling with loss or trying to help their teenage child. He shows glimpses of hope, the long slog of treatment, the lifesaving connections that can be made, and how one person can save another. In short, this is life on the page, captured with real empathy.

Konigsberg takes his young protagonists and builds their storylines fully, in one part even projecting us forward decades into what their loss meant for their families and how it continued to echo in their lives. He shares their deep sorrows, their reasons for contemplating suicide, their inability to put it into words themselves, and the powerful desire to have their pain just be over. He gives us the darkness and then the light, the ending portrayal of their stories are just what the reader needs, hope and unlikely friends.

Powerful, deeply impactful and masterful, this teen novel shows suicide in breathtaking complexity. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic Press.

Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero by Kelly J. Baptist

Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero by Kelly J. Baptist

Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero by Kelly J. Baptist (9780593121368)

Adapted from the short story that was published in Flying Lessons & Other Stories, this novel tells the story of Isaiah Dunn. Isaiah lost his father almost a year ago and now lives in a motel with his mother and sister. His mother tries to hide her drinking from them, but Isaiah knows what the bottles mean even if she removes the labels. Isaiah is lucky to have his best friend, Sneaky, someone who has a candy-selling hustle at school. It may mean heading into a dangerous part of town, but he’s intent on earning money. Isaiah joins him, hoping to get enough money to get his family out of the motel. But Isaiah is tired too, tired of being hassled by classmates like Angel, who makes fun of him, tired of the teachers cracking down on him, tired of being hungry. Luckily, he also has his father’s journals, which keep him focused, inspire him to write, and lead him to find positive ways to support his family.

In her first novel, Baptist gives us an incredible young hero. Isaiah is a powerful mix of family-focus, creativity and anger. Inspired by his father, he tries to keep focused on the good, on doing the right thing and on supporting his family. But sometimes it is too much for a ten-year-old boy to be the adult. Sometimes you need help. The book is also filled with great adult role models for Isaiah, from teachers to neighbors to employers. He may not see them at first, but they are there, ready to support him and his family.

Baptist’s writing is child-centered and clarion clear. She demands that readers see Isaiah as more than a statistic, as a full human being, worthy of attention and help. In a family that has sustained a powerful loss, she depicts grief with real skill, allowing it to destroy but also to be the reason to rise again.

Powerful, deep and full of creative voice, this novel will make Isaiah everyone’s hero. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Crown Books for Young Readers. 

The Shared Room by Kao Kalia Yang

The Shared Room by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Xee Reiter (9781517907945)

This picture book tackles what happens when a family loses a child. Set months after the death, the family is living in dim rooms with no fire lit. Shadows fill the rooms. There is a picture on the wall of their fourth child, who died by walking into water and drowning when she couldn’t swim. Her room is empty with her items still in place. Her parents visit the room every day and regularly watch a video of the little girl singing. The oldest boy was ten and shared a room with his brother. Then one day, his mother asked if he would like to move into his sister’s room. He agreed, then the emotions hit him and for the first time he is able to cry with the loss and the fact that she was never going to return. That night, he slept in his new room. A snowstorm blew in and the family lit the fire and gathered together in its warmth.

Yang’s prose is filled with poetic moments throughout this heartfelt story. Even introducing winter in St. Paul, Minnesota is done with imagery that opens this book with gray clouds and cracked ice. Yang’s depiction of a family in mourning is done with a delicacy and little drama. The sorrow soaks the pages, the shadows fill them, these moments are dramatic and terrible enough. The emotions ache in the prose, offering a Hmong family’s response to a tragedy.

Reiter’s paintings fill the pages with silence and shadow. She uses white space beautifully, positioning the family as a huddle at times and other times embracing the full page. She plays with shadows and light, using them to show the sorrow. The image of the older brother finally weeping is heart wrenching and very effective.

A quiet book of sorrow and loss. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy provided by University of Minnesota Press.

All of a Sudden and Forever by Chris Barton

All of a Sudden and Forever by Chris Barton

All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing by Chris Barton, illustrated by Nicole Xu (9781541526693)

This nonfiction picture book takes the tremendous tragedy of April 19, 1995 and leads readers to hope and a way forward. It looks deeply at the loss of life, at how so many people were lost and so many more were impacted by the deaths. It looks at the many broken bones and also the broken minds that resulted from the bombing too. The book then moves to after the bombing and the one tree that remained standing nearby. That American elm tree was battered  and scorched by the blast, yet it remained upright. It survived and became a beacon of hope for those who were impacted by the bombing. In spring, someone collected its seeds which then became part of the annual memorial service for the victims. As new tragedies happen, and they did and will in the future, those seeds and seedlings from Oklahoma City start the healing process and show that survival is possible and hope can return.

Barton’s words ache on the page. They are impossible to read without a deep feeling of mourning and loss, without recognizing what happened and what will continue to happen. The weaving of the story of the elm tree into the book is masterfully done, offering a glimpse of green and a path to the future. Barton writes with such empathy here. He allows the story to be told in all of its anguish and pain, and yet makes sure that hope has its place there as well.

The art by Xu is extraordinary. She uses the roots of the tree to intertwine with and embrace those in mourning, to show how interconnected we all are to one another. Done in ink and digitally, the art is a strong mixture of ethereal colors and grounding tree roots, people and spaces.

A powerful and evocative book about tragedy that celebrates life. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (9780062882769)

After a plane crashes on its way to the Dominican Republic, two families are impacted with grief and loss. Camino lives in the Dominican Republic with her auntie who is a local healer. She dreams of becoming a doctor and going to college in America. Her father, who died in the plane crash, lived most of the time in New York City, spending every summer with Camino. In New York City, Yahaira’s father was also killed in the crash. Yahaira had adored her father until she discovered his secret. She had been his champion chess player, competing and winning for him. But once she found out that he had another family in the Dominican Republic, she never forgave him. Now he is gone and it isn’t until they are preparing for his funeral that Yahaira and Camino discover that they are half-sisters born within months of one another.

Written in verse, this novel moves between the perspectives of Camino and Yahaira. The book begins with their father still alive and quickly moves to the crash and the shock of loss. The differences between their lives are stark with the poverty of the Dominican Republic clearly depicted as well as the dangers for teen girls. Still, it is also shown as a place of strong community, loving families, with bright colors, great food and warm welcomes.

Acevedo so clearly could have allowed the revelation of their shared father to be the defining moment of both of the girls’ lives. But she moves beyond it, creating a bond between these two teenagers that is powerful and haunting. It is not automatic, but steadily built as the trust grows between them, offering them both a way forward from the crash that they never anticipated.

Beautifully written, this is another marvel of a read from Acevedo. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Quill Tree Books.

Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry

Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry

Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry (9781616208967)

San Antonio is not a comfortable place for the Torres sisters. Their mother died giving birth to Rosa, the youngest sister, and their father never recovered from her death, drowning his feelings in drink. When the oldest sister, Ana falls from her window and dies, it takes a great toll on the entire family. A year later, the cracks are beginning to become even larger. Their father is rarely home and when he is he is verbally abusive, demanding, and drunk. Jessica, who got Ana’s bedroom and clothes, mourns her sister by dating the same boy she did. The relationship is violent and controlling, but Jessica can’t seem to move on. Iridian has stopped going to school, reads the same book over and over again, and writes her own stories. She finds herself caught indoors, unwilling to leave their horrible house. Rosa seeks the hyena that is loose in their neighborhood, wondering what special gift she might have and searching for it outside and in religion. The girls all want to escape, and it may just take Ana returning as a ghost to get them free.

Mabry’s novel is exceptional. Her writing is achingly beautiful, telling a story of profound grief and pain. Yet throughout, each of the sisters has bursts of hope, their own unique way forward potentially, if they could just take it. It’s tantalizing writing that creates its own unique emotional tug and writing that offers gem-like moments of clarity before succumbing under the weight of grief once more. The flashes of anger are like lightning on the page, bursts where one thinks things are about to change.

The sisters are all wonderfully crafted and unique from one another. The interplay of their relationships feels like sisterhood, lifting one another up unexpectedly, injuring each other inadvertently and fighting like hell to save the others.

A great teen novel about sisterhood, grief and ghosts. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Algonquin.

Efren Divided by Ernesto Cisneros

Efren Divided by Ernesto Cisneros

Efren Divided by Ernesto Cisneros (9780062881687)

Efren’s family works hard all day to provide for him and his younger twin siblings, Mia and Max. Efren’s mother, Ama, really holds the family together, creating delicious meals from leftovers every day. He thinks of her as “Soperwoman” because of the delicious sopes she makes. When Ama is seized by ICE and deported, it falls to Efren to watch his younger siblings, getting them ready in the morning, to bed at night, and trying to distract them from missing Ama. Efren’s father is working two jobs and not sleeping at all, just to send money to his mother in order to get her back into the U.S. As Efren’s school work and friendships start to suffer from the pressure he is under and his worry for his entire family, he looks for ways to make sure that his little brother and sister still feel loved, the way his mother would want them to.

Cisneros has created an ownvoices novel for middle graders that grapples with the state of immigration in the United States. The book is timely, speaking directly to situations that children across our country face every day if their parents are undocumented. The level of fear and dread that ICE has for these families, the danger of being deported, and the risks of returning to their families is all captured here, 

Efren is a marvelous protagonist. He is smart and has a huge heart as well as an astounding amount of patience towards his little brother and sister. Living in real poverty, his only wish is for his family to be whole, not for a phone, a bigger TV or anything but having his mother back. 

A gripping and rich look at the impact of current immigration policies on children of undocumented families. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperCollins.