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.

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.

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. 

Canyon’s Edge – a Literal Cliff-Hanger for Tweens

Lynn: My introduction to Dusti Bowling’s writing was with the wonderful Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus (Sterling, 2017) and I have enjoyed her books and desert country settings ever since. Her new book, Canyon’s Edge (Little, Brown, 2020) has just recently published and if ever there was a book guaranteed to hold a reader’s attention, it is this one!

It has been a year since the random shooting in a restaurant killed Nora’s mother. Both Nora and her father are suffering from PTSD and terrible grief and have pulled back from the world. Today is the first step back to attempting normal. Father and daughter are heading to the desert to rock climb and hike—a pastime the family has loved in the past. When a flash flood sweeps Nora’s father away along with her backpack and supplies, Nora is left to survive on her own in the aftermath. Determined to find her father and discovering a deep desire to live, Nora has to use all her skills, knowledge of the desert, and grit to survive.

The story is told partly in prose and partly in verse and it is quite literally a cliff-hanger! This short book was almost impossible to put down and it is going to make a terrific book talk. Nora’s journey to find her father is also a journey through the grief and anxiety that have been paralyzing her and this internal battle plays out starkly alongside her physical fight to survive. The setting is vividly portrayed and is almost a character as Nora battles the intensity of sun, harsh landscape, snakes, scorpions, the brutal conditions, and the “Beast” in her mind. Young readers will be rooting for her every step of the way.

I listened to this book on audio and the production was excellent.

Sorry for Your Loss – a Look at Family Grief

Lynn: Jessie Ann Foley has just 3 novels under her writing belt but she has garnered a lot of honors already including a Printz Honor, a YALSA Teen Top Ten selection, and a Morris Debut Award Finalist among other honors. Despite this, I was totally unprepared for the emotional power and impact of Foley’s new book, Sorry for Your Loss (Harper, 2019). This story opens with a funny scene that introduces readers to Pup Flanagan, an awkward unmotivated high school boy and reveals his hopeless crush on a classmate. Then Foley broadens the view, bringing in the other members of the large and noisy Flanagan family—a Chicago Catholic family with 7 kids. Pup is the youngest at 17 and his siblings all live within a short distance in what he thinks of as “Flanland.” But this close and loving family is struggling with crippling grief over the sudden death of one of the sons from meningitis and they are all lost and alone in the midst of the family crowd.

An art teacher takes an interest in Pup and in a lucky moment, opens a door for Pup into the unusual experience of finding something he is good at and enjoys. Through his camera lens, Pup begins to really see his world, his family, his relationships and his own pain and his family’s anguish with an objective eye for the first time. Helping Pup with his photography and giving him experience with another family is Abrihet, an Eritrean immigrant girl from his art class who encourages Pup to keep looking for the light. As Pup finally begins to deal with this grief, he slowly takes his family with him on a journey that may help them all to heal.

This is a deceptively quiet book. It is written with a slight sense of distance that allows the reader to walk this emotional path with Pup while also looking on with an objective sense at the entire arc of their family dynamics. I found this story incredibly powerful and deeply moving. It is a brilliant portrait of family relationships and the way so many families deal—or don’t deal—with grief. Pup is a charming and achingly authentic character who stole my heart as did the entire Flanagan mob. I won’t soon forget them.

While this is a wonderful moving book for older teens, I think it will be equally effective as a cross-over book for the new adult and adult readers.