The Wide Starlight by Nicole Lesperance

Cover image.

The Wide Starlight by Nicole Lesperance (9780593116227)

Eli was born in the tiny community of Svalbard, Norway. She was raised by a mother who loved stories that made their lives extraordinary. From magical tales in front of the fire to three girls set free from their destinies to marry princes, her stories were both a comfort and a concern. Then one night, Eli’s mother vanished from a frozen fjord leaving Eli behind in the icy darkness as she was swept up by the Northern Lights. Since then, Eli has lived a very normal life with her father in Cape Cod. Everything changes though when she receives a mysterious note brought by the wind and left in a bush for her. The Northern Lights are coming to Cape Cod, and Eli realizes that she may be able to bring her mother back. After whistling for her mother under the sweep of colors in the sky, her mother does return, but not without other consequences. Her mother is icy cold with fingernails that melt away and eyes full of darkness. When meteorites start to fall around them and narwhals beach nearby, Eli knows she must make the trip to Svalbard and find out how to save her mother.

Lesperance’s fantasy novel is beautifully crafted, full of echoes of stories like “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” It builds from these stories, creating something new and magical. The story spans continents, taking readers from Norway to America and back again. The contrasts between ways of life are profound and interesting. They support the wild and raw stories that come to life around Eli and her family. The settings are both depicted with clarity and a real attention to the details that make them special.

Eli and her mother are fabulous characters. Eli must find her way through the layers of the stories to see the truth within them that will lead her to her mother. She has to figure out how to trust, and it may just be the most unlikely people around her. The depiction of her grandmother is one of the best in the book, showing what could have stayed a stereotypical cruel woman and turning her into something complex who supports the entire story.

Clever writing, beautiful world building and a twist on classic folk tales make this a book worth exploring, perhaps with mittens. Appropriate for ages 12-16.

Reviewed from copy provided by Razorbill.

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.

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.

Review: The End of Something Wonderful by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

The End of Something Wonderful by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

The End of Something Wonderful: A Practical Guide to a Backyard Funeral by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic, illustrated by George Ermos (9781454932116)

This nonfiction picture book offers a guide to planning your dead pet’s backyard funeral. It is entirely practical, offering the first step as actually having something dead. With a mix of humor and heartfelt connection to grief and loss, the book offers real ideas for what to bury the creature in, what other items that creature might like in their grave with them, and even what sorts of stories to share at the funeral with everyone. The book ends with thoughts of visiting the grave when you need to and then feeling able to move on when it’s the right time for that.

The author offers real empathy for children who have lost a pet, making sure that they feel free to express their feelings along the way and share their experiences. However, she also creates humorous moments throughout the book to make sure that it never becomes oppressively sad or morose. It’s a very readable and remarkably enjoyable guide to funerals. The art by Ermos helps with the mix of light tone and dark subject too, giving glimpses of the skeletons under ground as well as the delight of flowers and ideas for animals too large to bury.

Funny and frank, this funeral guide is just what we all need. Appropriate for ages 6-10.

Reviewed from library copy.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

we-are-okay-by-nina-lacour

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

Released February 14, 2017.

Marin left her entire old life behind, arriving at college in New York two weeks ahead of schedule and with almost nothing with her. She tried to leave that life behind and start anew, but now her best friend Mabel is coming to see her. The best friend that Marin hasn’t spoken to in months, the best friend she hasn’t texted or called. Left alone in the deserted dorm as winter break arrives, Marin can only wait for Mabel to arrive. When she does, they are awkward together and the story of their relationship slowly reveals itself. Along the way, Marin’s unique relationship with her grandfather also emerges. Now it is up to Marin to face everything she has run from for the first time.

I knew on the very first page that this was a book that would consume me. LaCour writes with a precision and yet a naturalness that disarms and embraces the reader. She is delicate at times, allowing the reader to explore and learn. At other points she is direct, pointing out pain, tenderness and loss with care. The tone is uniquely hers, a voice that is beautiful to read, filled with poignancy, hesitation and wonder all the while it fights depression and despair.

This is a novel of hope, a novel that shows how difficult it can be to face loss and betrayal. It is a book that speaks of the power of bridging those gaps in our lives, of finding a person we love once again and allowing them back into our lives. It’s a story of slowly opening that door, the door to humanity and joy that had seemed locked forever. It’s a story of transformation that is simple and yet profound.

One of the best young adult books on loss and grief that I have ever read, this one will find a place in your heart. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from ARC received from Dutton Books for Young Readers.

 

Life in a Fishbowl by Len Vlahos

life-in-a-fishbowl-by-len-vlahos

Life in a Fishbowl by Len Vlahos (InfoSoup)

When Jared Stone discovers that he has terminal brain cancer, he decides to sell his life to the highest bidder on eBay. He gains the attention of a nun, a psychologically-disturbed man of leisure and wealth, a video-game playing teen, and a TV producer. When his posting is pulled down on eBay, only one person is left, the TV producer. So Jared and his family become the focus of a reality TV show and lose their privacy entirely. Jackie, Jared’s 15-year-old daughter, will not willingly participate in the show, figuring out how to avoid the crew and the cameras. But perhaps there is even more that she can do as she starts her own behind-the-scenes YouTube show that tells the truth about the editing and manipulation of her family by the reality show.

Vlahos tells a story of our time, about the dangers of believing in what we see on TV, of the siren call of money and the problems and advantages that come with using the internet for connections. Told from a variety of points of view, including Jared’s tumor, the book has a dark sense of humor throughout. Despite that humor, there is a sense of claustrophobia that pervades the novel as well, one that is built on the invasion of privacy from the TV cameras and then exacerbated by the manipulation and deviousness that surrounds the family.

Still, there is not despair here, even with a terminal illness as a central theme. It is instead a book about fighting back, being true to yourself and finding a way forward against the odds. A large part of that is Jackie, a girl who doesn’t fit in at school and appreciates her privacy. This is her nightmare scenario as the TV cameras roll and it forces her to reach out for help to people who are like her and can aid in fighting back. Through Jackie, we see how the Internet is more than darkness, it is also a source of hope and connection. It is both things at the same time.

A book of complex issues, the fakery of reality TV, and the dual sides of the Internet, this is a riveting read. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from ARC received from Bloomsbury.