To Tell You the Truth by Beth Vrabel

Cover image for To Tell You the Truth.

To Tell You the Truth by Beth Vrabel (9781534478596)

Gran told Trixy stories from the time she was born. No one else believed Gran’s stories were true, but Trixy knew they were. After Gran’s death, Trixy holds on to her stories, particularly the one she promised to never tell. Gran told Trixy that stories weren’t meant for everyone, because sometimes they can’t be heard. When her teacher tells her that she needs to write down a true story, Trixy borrows one from Gran. It’s a story that is unbelievable, combining cake, theft and Liberace. Soon Trixy is telling lots of people Gran’s stories and submitting some for publication. Deep down she knows the stories are real, but can she prove it? It’s going to take telling some lies, doing some sneaking, and traveling across the state to meet people who knew Gran and can tell Trixy the real truth.

Vrabel has created a novel wrapped around a series of delightful short stories told in Gran’s voice. Through those stories and Trixy’s memories, readers gain a deep sense of who Gran was. The novel is an exploration of the power of stories that are shared, a question of what truth really is, and then an ending that will require a few tissues. The writing is marvelous with just the right amount of Southern charm. The play between the novel itself and the stories works amazingly well, combining richly together.

Trixy is a character who is holding not only stories but also secrets. Her relationships with others are difficult thanks to her prickly way with others. Trixy regularly believes that she is right, doesn’t listen to others, and in the process speaks hurtfully to them. At the same time, her pain over losing her beloved Gran is evident as is her need to connect with other people. She manages to transform those around her with her stories while at the same time also changing herself too.

A charming Southern novel about stories, loss, love and truth. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.

Ten Thousand Tries by Amy Makechnie

Cover image for Ten Thousand Tries.

Ten Thousand Tries by Amy Makechnie (9781534482296)

Golden knows that this is the year that he will become captain of his school soccer team. He’s been working toward a goal of practicing ten thousand times in order to master the sport. After all, his father was a pro soccer player, though now he is battling ALS, a progressive disease that is stealing his ability to use his muscles. Golden believes that as long as his father keeps on trying, he can prevent the disease from worsening. And sometimes it even seems like it is working. Golden tries to keep control of everything, making sure that his year is as perfect as possible, but there are so many things outside of his control. The soccer year doesn’t work quite as Golden planned, one of his best friends plans to move away, and his father continues to decline. Golden may need a different approach to all of these things if he is to look after his family and friends well.

Makechnie is the author of The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair. In this second book, she writes a heartfelt story about grief and denial. While the book has soccer as a major focus, she writes it in a way that allows the games to make sense for those of us who may not know the rules. Even in the games, the clear purpose is teamwork and supporting one another, things that Golden needs to figure out in the rest of his life too. She creates amazing moments throughout the book of deep connection with one another, wise choices and intangible joys that appear out of nowhere. It’s a book about loss but also about life.

Golden is a remarkable protagonist. He is so deeply in denial that at first his rationales make sense to both him and the reader. As the book and his father’s ALS progress though, the reader steadily realizes that Golden is struggling more profoundly. It’s beautifully done with grace and with a deep empathy for Golden and his family. The secondary characters in the book are all richly drawn, including Golden’s two best friends who have struggles of their own and his family members.

A heart-rending look at grief, this book embraces the joy of life too. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Atheneum.

What’s the Matter Marlo? by Andrew Arnold

What’s the Matter Marlo? by Andrew Arnold (9781250223234)

This picture book about friendship explores what happens when a best friend is grieving and angry. Told in the first person, the book draws readers directly into the tale. Two children are best friends, and they do everything together from hide-and-seek to joke books. No matter how well Marlo hides, his best friend can find him. But then one day, something was wrong and Marlo didn’t want to play. He told his friend to go away. Sharing a joke made it even worse and Marlo got angrier and angrier, until his anger took up all the space. But his friend remembered that no matter what they could always find Marlo. That’s when they found out what was going on and did just what a best friend should do, they cried together.

Arnold captures the beauty of a young friendship based on shared humor, a great dog and playing games together. He shows the richness of the friendship and how connected these two children are. That gives the platform for Marlo’s deep anger and anguish to appear. While it is confusing, his friend does just the right thing, staying around and offering comfort and empathy. Remarkably, the book is told in short and approachable sentences, allowing the images to tell a lot of the story too.

The illustrations are full of green grass, backyard spaces, and play. When Marlo’s anger appears, it is a black scribble of emotion that steadily grows to turning all of the pages to pitch black. It is in that moment that his friend finds him. That friend who speaks in first person is marvelously androgynous, able to be either girl or boy and it doesn’t matter at all.

A resonant friendship story about empathy and grief. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Roaring Brook Press.

The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf

Cover image

The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf (9780593302279)

Aniyah and her brother are new in the foster-care system. At ten-years-old, Aniyah grew up in a family where they worked hard to placate her father’s temper and eventually hid from him with her mother and little brother. Now her mother is gone, but Aniyah knows she isn’t gone forever. When Aniyah hears that a new star has been found in the sky, she knows that it is her mother transformed. But the international contest to name the star will get it wrong! Aniyah, her brother and two of the other foster kids in the house set out on a wild Halloween-night journey to London and the Royal Observatory to make sure that the star is named after Aniyah’s mother after all.

This is the second book by the author of the award-winning The Boy at the Back of the Class. It is a story of familial abuse and terror, but told through the eyes of a ten-year-old whose mother tried to shelter her from what was actually happening. Aniyah has stories built around all of the noises she heard, from “moving furniture” to “playing hide and seek.” It makes the truth of the matter all the more haunting for readers who will understand what happened to Aniyah’s mother long before the character does.

It creates a deep tenderness between the reader and the main protagonist. Aniyah and her little brother are voices of pure innocence in the book, accompanied by other children who have been warned not to reveal the truth to her. Their lengthy experience in foster care contrasts profoundly with Aniyah’s demonstrating to the reader how special their foster mother is and how traumatic many of the children’s lives are.

A fine weaving of grief, innocence and trauma. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

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.