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.

 

A Home for Goddesses and Dogs by Leslie Connor

A Home for Goddesses and Dogs by Leslie Connor

A Home for Goddesses and Dogs by Leslie Connor (9780062796783)

Lydia was with her mother as she died and soon after is moving to rural Connecticut to live with her Aunt Brat, her wife and their elderly landlord. Lydia brings with her a box of the goddesses that she and her mother created together as they faced the good and bad in their life. She keeps them hidden from Aunt Brat and everyone at her new home, looking for a private place to hang them in honor of her mother. On the weekend after Lydia moves in, the family also adopts a big yellow dog. Lydia isn’t a dog person, having never lived with one, particularly one this large and untrained. Still, Lydia pitches in to help, something that she does a lot with a chirpy voice that doesn’t seem to belong to her. It helps her also cover up secrets like the growing hole in her wall, a tag that might help them find the yellow dog’s new owner, and even a secret of Aunt Brat’s about baby goats. 

Connor’s books are always surprising in the best way. She takes very interesting characters and throws them together here in a new family with a new dog and plenty to hide. The result is a book that untangles itself slowly, revealing new truths and interesting hiding places along the way. The setting of rural Connecticut plays a large role in the story, inviting readers to explore the hills and valleys filled with farms and fields. 

The characters, both human and dog, are exceptionally well drawn. No secondary character is left without a deeper story, and this is done without crowding the main story out. Still, it is Lydia’s story and she is far more than a tragic orphan who has lost her mother. Instead, she is resilient and hard working, willing to always pitch in to help. As she literally grapples with having a new dog in her life, she is also working on new human friends, fitting into a new family, and finding her way forward with new people to love.

Full of dogs, warmth and love, this is another great read from a talented author. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.

Review: When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller

When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller

When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller (9781524715700)

Lily, her mother and sister move in with her elderly Korean grandmother. In the small town, Lily soon discovers that everyone knows and loves her grandmother, who wears glamorous clothes and tries to offer advice and help to her community. Halmoni has always been special to Lily too, sharing stories of tigers, girls and stars with her and her sister. So when they are heading to Halmoni’s house and Lily sees a tiger out of the car window, she knows it’s from her grandmother’s tales and that tigers are tricksters. As Lily starts to understand that her grandmother is severely ill, she believes that she can help by working with the tiger to release the stories from her grandmother’s jars. The stories emerge and shine in the darkness, returning to the sky as stars and allowing Lily to hear some of the more difficult stories for the first time. Yet, Lily isn’t sure if the tiger is actually real and if the tiger is, can she be trusted to really help Halmoni?

Keller’s novel for middle grade readers explores the complexity of stories both in terms of folklore but also stories of previous generations in a family and the difficulties they faced in other countries and in traveling to the United States. The power of stories themselves is never in question here, shining through as each tale is shared. They connect, explain and inspire. But stories here are also hidden, carefully kept from others so that their pain need not be shared. This too speaks to their incredible power and the importance of them being told. So in the end, whether you believe in the tiger or not, you will believe in the stories themselves and their magic.

This novel is so beautifully written. Readers will experience it as a series of jars to be opened and released by them. The tales themselves are told in language and tones that really make them understood to be part of an oral tradition. The rest of the book, the story of Lily and her family, is layered and fascinating. All of the characters are complex and have multiple dimensions to their personalities. Lily is caught up in her own world of tiger traps and magical jars, but everyone else has their own perspectives on what is happening to Halmoni and their family.

A powerful book of stories, magic and tigers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

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