Grief and Loss for the Youngest Readers

Lynn and Cindy: Grief and loss is a sad part of the natural cycle of life even for our youngest readers. This past year’s events have made that experience much more widespread. Difficult even for mature individuals, the struggle to understand loss can be particularly challenging for young children. We have reviewed other helpful books in the past and we have recently found more sensitively written picture books that are a wonderful addition to the list. Books cannot cure grief but they can help children understand that what they feel is normal and begin to heal.

My Nana’s Gardenmy nana's garden (Candlewick/Templar, 2020) by Dawn Casey.

This lovely gentle picture book shows the story of the changing seasons in a garden and the relationship that flourishes there between a grandmother and young granddaughter. The delicate illustrations show the passing years as the child grows taller and the grandmother frailer as they share their joy in the natural world. Then, with a page turn, readers find a stark and wintry scene and the grandmother’s empty chair. The young girl stares out of the house at the snow covered garden. But the renewing cycle of life returns and the reassuring story reveals the following seasons of the enduring beautiful garden and the new generations that come to share in Nana’s garden. Quietly encouraging, this beautiful told tale reaffirms the love of a shared experience and the healing cycle of life.

Tears (Owlkids, 2021)tears by Sibylle Delacroix.

“Everyone cries,” begins this wonderful picture book that addresses an experience that is universal. For a young child, tears and crying are a fundamental part of their lives. But they may not have really thought about the complexity of what lies behind the tears or the variety of ways in which we cry. Delacroix uses simple sentences in this story for the youngest readers, with examples that they will easily understand. She reinforces each example with adorable illustrations created in soft aqua and white tones, often using teardrop shapes in the sketches. While this is not specifically a book about grief, it is a book that young children will find both interesting and comforting.

The Boy and the Gorilla (Candlewick, 2020) by Jackie Azúa Kramer.

Boy and the Gorilla by Jackie KramerThis gentle, spare picture book story will help many young children who have lost a parent. In the story, a gorilla follows a young boy home from his mother’s funeral. The boy asks the gorilla questions like “How do you know when someone has died?” Or “Will we all die?” The gorilla answers in short, truthful sentences, “Yes. We all do. But you have many more kites to fly.” The gorilla stays with the boy through the dark days as he and his father struggle to rise from their own grief to connect fully with each other. Eventually, the boy and his father find their way back to each other and that connection is wrapped in a big hug surrounded by a gorilla hug before he wanders off, perhaps to help the next child who needs him. Cindy Derby’s expressive watercolors highlight the moods and emotions with a mostly somber palette that lightens on the brighter days. Even in the darkest times, though, there are tiny sparks of color…a red cardinal, red and blue kites, bright crayons, hinting that while the dark is overwhelming, there is still joy to be found. This is simply a  beautiful book to share in hard times.

Ten Beautiful Things – A Picture Book Journey to Home

Ten beautiful thingsLynn: Something has happened in young Lily’s life. Molly Beth Griffin’s Ten Beautiful Things (Charlesbridge, 2021) opens with a scene showing a young girl in a car seat. She has an Iowa map open on her lap and a backpack and stuffed animal ride beside her. The scene on the next page widens to show a small car rolling through the dark night, an older woman at the wheel. “Let’s try to find ten beautiful things along the way,” says Gram. Griffin never reveals what has happened but Lily’s chest is “hollow” and her eyes and posture are sad. “There’s nothing beautiful here,” she says. “Lily felt the complaints starting in her belly again, coming up her throat and nearly out her mouth.” But one by one, slowly the world provides a different answer for Lily.

A golden sunrise across the fields, a red-winged blackbird, a swan shaped cloud and even the earthy rich smell of mud at a rest stop, unfold before Lily’s eyes as they travel. And at journey’s end, there is number 10—Gram’s reassuring hug as they stand before Lily’s new home. “We’re ten,” Gram said.

I dare you to read THAT line and the rest of the final text without a tear in your eye and a crack in your voice! This reassuring and moving story is a gift for every child feeling uprooted, sad, and facing a new life. I especially value that Griffin leaves Lily’s particular issues unknown, allowing each child to put themselves and their own situation into the story. The book, while acknowledging the difficult and the sad things that kids experience, is sweetly reassuring. The simple suggestion of looking for those ten beautiful things is concrete and doable even for young children and something that can help with those “hollow spots” within us at least for a while.

Maribel Lechug’s digital illustrations are warm and expressive and she takes full advantage of the extra wide format. The two-page spread of the dark clouds of a thunderstorm sweeping over the Iowa farmland is particularly effective. While the small vignettes scattered across a white page, showing Lily in her car seat, sadly curled into herself, tell readers volumes without a word needed.

This journey with Gram and Lily is not to be missed.

Someone Builds the Dream: A Tribute to the Trades

Cindy: Someone Builds the Dream by Lisa WheelerHardworking people in the trades are center stage in Someone Builds the Dream (Dial, 2021) by Lisa Wheeler and Loren Long. Architects, engineers, artists, scientists, amusement park designers, and even authors use their imagination, knowledge, and skills to dream up important and sometimes fun places, structures, or books, but the work doesn’t end there. It takes many hands to build the dream. For instance, and engineer designs a bridge but:

Someone works to mine the ore,
smelt the iron, pour the beam.
Someone needs to weld the steel.
Someone has to build the dream.

Written in jaunty rhyme, this book celebrates the many skilled laborers who often aren’t included in the ribbon-cutting ceremonies and photo opportunities for new structures and places. I expecially appreciated the inclusion of book-making as children have no idea about how a book comes to be as it isn’t something that happens out in the open like the building of homes that they might see. I’ll leave the illustrations for Lynn to rave about, but Loren Long, ahem, nailed it with these paintings. 

Lynn: I’ve long been a fan of Loren Long’s work, especially his Otis the Tractor books, but for me, this is his best work yet. There is a wonderful feeling of homage to the WPA murals of the 1930s that also celebrated the workers across the country. But there is a lot more here than just a tip of the hard hat to WPA art. Long’s extensive craftsmanship is beautifully at work in the skillful design and pacing. Each series begins with a “dreamer” at work, often alone in a quiet space and the text shown against a white background. The next spreads in contrast are busy, muscular, vividly-hued and pulsing with activity as the workers use their skills to bring each dream to life. Each scene is packed with details and demands readers to pause and explore. There is so much to look at! I love that the workers are of a wide diversity of races, are both men and women, and depicted as skillfully engaged in the work.  This is a partnership of text and illustration at its best!

Shape Shifters and Dragons for Middle Grade Readers

Cindy and Lynn: Sometimes with science fiction or fantasy, you just have to accept the concept and go with the flow of a fun or intriguing story that may be more out-of-this-world than you might even expect from these genres. We each recently read one of these.

Lynn: Trouble in the Stars by Sarah PrineasSarah Prineas’ new book, Trouble in the Stars (Penguin/Philomel, 2021) avoids the pitfalls that often beset middle grade SF by not dwelling on the mechanics of the world building. Instead she simply establishes the setting as a multi-world universe with interstellar travel as a given. But a major premise of the book, that the young protagonist is a shape-shifter created in a laboratory, is something readers need to accept as possible. That isn’t hard to do since the fast-paced plot ramps up right from the start. Readers are introduced to Trouble, floating in space as a sort of amorphous cloud of goo, realizes something dangerous is searching for him. In short order he squeezes into a space station, transforms into the form of an adorable puppy, and stows away on a battered ship heading out into space. When the puppy is discovered and “spaced,” Trouble shape shifts into a 10-year old human boy, wins a 3-week reprieve till the next destination, and is set to work as a cabin boy. The Hindsight has a wonderfully engaging alien crew and it is clear that they are not being completely open about what their mission actually is. Just as Trouble starts to win over the crew, they spot the StarLeague ship that is tracking them!

 This terrific story is a character driven tale of family, identity, and finding a home. The characters are all well drawn, intriguing. and decidedly distinct individuals. Trouble himself is instantly appealing and relatable— quite a feat for a clump of goo 😉 There’s plenty of humor as Prineas manages a conventional trope of “alien-figuring-out-human-behavior” in a way that young readers will greatly enjoy. The plot has plenty of suspense and just enough danger to keep reader’s interest high. This would make an ideal read aloud for a classroom, Chapters end with just enough suspense to make listeners beg for more and the story is packed with themes that would make great discussion topics. I’m hoping there will be more adventures for Trouble and the Hindsight

Cindy: Despite the opening pitch, my offering is less fantasy, really, and more a blend of historical fiction, adventure, survival, and environmental tale with the threatened species being…dragons! A Discovery of Dragons (Scholastic, July, 1, 2021) is a debut novel by science teacher, Lindsay Galvin. Young Discovery of Dragons by Lindsay GalvinSimon Covington is an assistant to Charles Darwin on the USS Beagle, playing fiddle and labeling specimens on the scientist’s famous voyage to the Gallapagos Islands. When he is lost at sea after helping to rescue Darwin, he winds up on an unexplored island with an active volcano. He soon learns that the volcano is not the only thing breathing fire on the island. With the help of his fiddle (from which Simon hears advice and sarcasm) and a lizard he names Farthing, Simon manages rescue and returns to London. There he continues to help Darwin with his specimens but also to deal with his own—a set of eggs he rescued and that are now starting to hatch! Simon’s character is based on a real boy of the same name who aided Darwin on this voyage and details of Darwin’s life and work are woven into the story, but it remains an adventure focused on what may be the last dragon eggs in the world. Might Darwin have found dragons in addition to finches and tortoises if he’d looked in the right place? We may never know. I was willing to let the story unfold as a possibility. Young fans of dragon stories and young naturalists are going to enjoy this science-based adventure. Maybe it’s not fantasy at all….if the dragons are/were real? Hmmmmm….

Grief and Friendship: The Shape of Thunder

Cindy: Shape of Thunder by Jasmine WargaI know we have way too many young people who have had to deal with the aftermath of a school shooting, but that didn’t make it any easier to pick up this book. I sure am glad I did. The Shape of Thunder (Harper/Balzer + Bray, 2021) by Jasmine Warga is a powerful story about friendship and grieving and community healing that starts in two homes. Seventh graders Cora Hamed and Quinn McCauley have been friends since second grade but haven’t spoken to each other in a year. Quinn’s older brother died in a school shooting he initiated that also killed Cora’s older sister. Both girls are dealing with loss, Quinn’s compounded by anger at her brother, and a slowly revealed guilt over her belief she might have prevented the shooting. The story is presented in alternating chapters between the girls, and also in letters that Quinn writes to her brother as she struggles to balance her love for her brother with her hatred of what he did. 

What finally breaks the silence between the two friends is Quinn’s research and idea that they must travel back in time to before the shooting to prevent it. She has been studying up on worm holes and time travel and begs Cora to help her. Their desperation to fix what has gone wrong in their world is palpable and the pages turn fast as readers watch their efforts and wish for healing for them. 

Despite the grim topic, Warga spins a story that is hopeful and that will help healing in many grieving situations or even in rifts in longtime friendships that often hit the breaking point in seventh grade. Great for book clubs or lit circles, middle school counselors, teachers, and parents would do well to read this story, too.

Not Your Ordinary Fantasy – Oddity

Lynn: Oddity by Eli BrownAre the fantasies being cranked out right now all blending together for you? Not sure exactly which one you read last? Me too! Somehow so many of them look exactly alike and I’m having a hard time figuring out which girl-with-a-sword book I read.  Happily, I have something for you that really stands apart. Hugely enjoyable and something of an oddity itself, Oddity (Walker, 2021) by Eli Brown  is very different from what has been crossing my desk lately. Eli  Brown has created a richly imagined alternate world in which the Louisiana Purchase never happened and the “Louisiana War” has reached an uneasy peace, dividing the lands between Bonaparte, the eastern colony states, and a strong confederation of Native American tribes.

In this land a type of magic exists in which enormously powerful objects are determining the balance of power. Such things as time-traveling matches, a rag doll with unstoppable power, and a pistol that always hits the target create a fascinating scenario although the magical systems are never explained. A cast of characters equally as unusual and engaging continue the intrigue.

Clover Elkin has long been fascinated by Oddities and longs to become a collector just like her mother was. Clover and her doctor father live on the border of French Louisiana and there are frightening signs that the uneasy peace may be ending. Clover’s father hates Oddities and blames his wife’s death on them, forbidding Clover from pursuing her dream. One day as Clover and her father are returning from a call to a patient, they are accosted by a band of strangers who shoot and kill the doctor. As he dies, he urges Clover to take his medical bag, protect the Oddity inside and take it to the Society of Anomalogists. On her journey, Clover meets and gathers some unusual allies including a general who is a talking rooster, a young medicine show con artist, and a hat that steals people’s deepest secrets. The unique world building and wildly eccentric cast of endearing characters make this a stand out book. Best for a good reader willing to follow a complex plot, this is also a door opener for kids to the alternate universe genre.

The book also features outstanding design and production including eye-catching illustrations by Karin Rytter that add to the overall appeal. The door is definitely open for a sequel and that is something I would love to see!

Think You Know the Ending? Try These Picture Books

Lynn and Cindy: We have written before about our conviction that young readers love picture books in which they figure out what piece of wool is being pulled over a character’s eyes before he/she does. We love those too and we especially love it when we THINK that is happening but the story goes on to take a twist we never anticipated. We have two new picture books that do just that and we’re still smiling thinking about them!

Lynn: How to Catch a Clover Thief (Little, Brown, 2021) How to Catch a Clover Thief by Elise Parsleyby Elise Parsley had me laughing from page one. Wait – I think it had me laughing the moment I saw the cover! Roy the Boar has discovered a just-about-ready patch of his favorite meal – clover! All he has to do is lie there patiently and wait for it to be deliciously ready. Enter Jarvis, a suspiciously friendly gopher. He assures Roy he knows this is Roy’s patch and won’t trespass BUT he’s sure Roy will like the cookbook he is bringing, How to Cook with Clover. Roy is wary but he is quickly absorbed by tempting recipes and before readers can shout a warning, Roy is off gathering mushrooms! And of course, when Roy returns to his clover patch, it is noticeably smaller. Enter Jarvis with a new book, this time on camping! It is hilarious and kids will be sure they know that poor Roy is being tricked. But this story goes on to upend readers with a  terrifically unexpected twist. Readers will laugh and cheer! Parsley’s wonderfully goofy illustrations are the perfect addition to this to this clever bait-and-switch. Fabulous fun  and I love that books are key to the ongoing wackiness.

Sheepish by Helen YoonCindy: I have another “wolf in sheep’s clothing” in Helen Yoon’s delightful Sheepish: (Wolf Under Cover) (Candlewick, 2021). The trope of a wolf disguising himself as a sheep to get a good dinner, gets a twist in this picture book that will have children howling at the antics. Wolf is sure that his disguise is so good that the sheep in this rural boarding-school environment will never notice a thing. He’s delusional, of course, as kids will see the nervous and fearful expressions and responses from the sheep when he grabs his breakfast tray and goes through the cafeteria line with them, thoughts of roasted sheep dancing in his head as he picks up okra. In addition to his disguise, he needs to be helpful, friendly, and a team player to lower their suspicions and defenses. All is going according to plan…until it’s not. A few twists send the story in a new direction, to the relief of sheep-lovers….and wolf-lovers. Yoon’s illustrations are full of fun details to explore and are infused in humor…and some love. Don’t miss this gem.

Just Like That: Schmidt Does It Again

Lynn: Gary Schmidt has done it again. His new book Just Like That (Clarion, 2021) is another gem of a middle-grade novel. He makes a startling Just Like That by Gary D Schmidtmove with an event that takes place just prior to the book’s opening. A reader-favorite character, Holling Hoodhood, dies, leaving his best friend grappling with the grief and despair she terms “the Blank.” Unable to face returning to their shared junior high school in the fall, Meryl Lee is sent by her parents to an elite private boarding school in Maine, St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls. Placed in a room with 3 hostile girls from wealthy privileged families, Meryl Lee feels even more alone and adrift.

In a concurrent and very Dickensian story line, young Matthew Coffin has also landed in the area. On the run from a Fagin-type character and in possession of a cache of money stolen from him, Matt is also adrift in loneliness, guilt and grief. He works the fishing boats, avoids authorities, and fights to stay unnoticed. But Dr. Nora MacKnockater, head of St. Elene’s, sees both teens, their qualities and their struggles. Both story lines intersect as Meryl Lee takes on pearl-wearing roommates, class discrimination, Shakespearean sonnets, dissection, and field hockey. A catalyst for change, Meryl Lee alters the lives and paths of everyone around her—including her own. Heartfelt, insightful, very funny, and deeply moving, this memorable story is Schmidt at the top of his game. Stellar in every way, this book is a gift to readers of all ages.

Cindy: I started reading this in print but then had to be on the road so I bought the audio version and what a treat it was to hear this story read aloud. The 1968 Vietnam War era is well-infused into this story, sometimes in grief-stricken ways, and others more light-hearted, like the ill-fated luncheon when Vice President Spiro Agnew visits the school. Meryl Lee has a bit of Anne Shirley in her, she means well, but unfortunate things just happen sometimes. Dr. MacKnockater is the kind of teacher every kid needs at some time in their journey and both Meryl Lee and Matthew benefit from her wise counsel that also encourages them to figure out what they need to for themselves. Gentle nudges and loving support. Growing up is hard enough, growing up while grieving is even harder. Like last year’s fabulous Pay Attention, Carter Jones that we posted about, the grief is palpable and informed by Schmidt’s own journey, but his humor scenes show that life continues between the blanks. Obviously this is for fans of Schmidt’s connected novels, The Wednesday Wars and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, but Kate DiCamillo fans will embrace these vivid characters and their story too. 

Turtle in Paradise as Graphic Novel

Turtle in Paradise the Graphic Novel by Jennifer L HolmCindy:  Jennifer L. Holm’s Newbery Honor historical fiction Turtle in Paradise (Random, 2010) is getting a new graphic novel edition (RH Graphic, May 4, 2021) with art by Savanna Ganucheau and colorist Lark Pien! I couldn’t be happier as it is sure to bring new young readers to the story, perhaps in both formats. The cover is painted in wide swaths of Key West seaside-inspired hues that are used throughout the panels inside as the story of 11-year-old Turtle’s time with her aunt and boy cousins unfolds. I read the original novel on a Florida beach in 2010 and in a post we wrote for the Booklist Reader, I said:

This book, like a conch shell, slowly builds on itself as each episodic story is added. The boys (Beans, Slow Poke, Kermit and Pork Chop) call themselves the Diaper Gang and earn candy by watching babies for weary neighborhood mothers. The story, set in 1935, is a fun and touching look at a tough time for both Turtle and the Key West community she’s been dropped into.

It’s a fun trip to read it again in this new format. 

Lynn:  What a treat to meet Turtle and the Diaper Gang once more! I have to think that the Diaper Gang would be in huge demand today with exhausted pandemic families! Maybe some enterprising young readers will seize the chance.

The story has moved seamlessly into graphic format and illustrator Savanna Ganucheau and Colorist Lark Pien have used the perfect palette of warm island colors to evoke the setting of this charming story.

A wonderful addition to this GN version is the new back matter. Jennifer Holm writes of her family connection to Key West. Her Conch Great-Grandmother emigrated there in the 1800’s and Holm has memories of visiting there as a child. Included are some wonderful photos of Key West in the 1930’s. There is also a note from Illustrator Ganucheau.

If you’ve read the original, don’t miss this charming new version and if you are new to Turtle’s stories, be sure to read both formats!

 

Eyes that Kiss in the Corners: an AAPI Own Voices Picture Book

Cindy: If you are as dismayed as we are by the numerous racial attacks on members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, this new book will give you some comfort. Last week’s publisher delivery of Eyes that Kiss in the Corners (Harper, 2021) by Joanna Ho couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

When a young girl realizes that her eyes are very different from her round-eyed friends, she describes them as “eyes that kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea.” They are just like her mama’s. Her description grows with each family member as she describes her mother’s, Amah’s, and baby sister’s eyes.

My eyes crinkle into crescent moons
and sparkle like the stars.
Gold flecks dance and twirl
while stories whirl
in their oolong pools,
carrying tales of the past
and hope for the future….

The girl’s understanding of her beauty, her strength, her family, and her story grows throughout the book into a revolution and an appreciation of who she is and the worth she has. Dung Ho’s digital illustrations showcase nature and legend in addition to the females’ eyes and will delight readers young and old. This book belongs in every library collection for young people and should be read aloud to groups of children of all ethnicities. Count this as a solid addition to Own Voices literature.