A too-high percentage of our students and their peers are affected by death, loss, and grief. Everyone experiences loss differently, but death has become all too common in our children’s worlds. The statistics are overwhelming:
In 2020, a total of 3,383,729 resident deaths were registered in the United States. (CDC) Not all these deaths affected our students and their peers, but a high percentage were parents, grandparents and other relatives, guardians, siblings, friends, and other people with whom our students may have had relationships.
The death of a parent in childhood is a traumatic experience. An estimated 3.5% of children under age 18 (approximately 2.5 million) in the United States have experienced the death of a parent. (Parenting for Brain, 2022)
In 2018, 400,000 people under 25 suffered from the death of a loved one. (National Mental Health Association)
An estimated 5.6 million children in the U.S. will experience the death of a parent or sibling by age 18. (Judi’s House, 2022)
Many of these statistics don’t account for the number of children who lose a “parental figure,” such as a grandparent or other relative who provides their care. (Journal of Hospice & Palliative Nursing)
In the United States, 5-8% of children with siblings experience such a loss. (NY Times, 2017)
A study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggests that about 5% of young people have experienced the death of a close relative or friend before the age of 15. (U.S. News & World Report, 2017)
According to a 2012 survey from the American Federation of Teachers and New York Life Foundation, nearly 70 percent of classroom teachers reported having at least one student in their class (or classes) who has lost a parent, guardian, sibling, or close friend in the past year. (Edutopia)
However, parents and guardians leave children in many different ways and for many diverse reasons, some beyond their control. In the United States, more than 7,000 children are abandoned each year. Some are abandoned at birth; others later in life. Some are given up for adoption or go into the foster care system, and many live with relatives. The United Nations estimates 60 million children and infants have been abandoned by their families and live on their own or in orphanages in the world.
Story can be instrumental in supporting children and adolescents facing loss and handling grief and also effect empathy for their peers who are coping with losses. Children need to see their lives and the lives of their classmates reflected in story to feel heard and seen. Whole-class selections provide a base for conversations about loss and create classroom community. Five or six of these novels can be employed for classroom book clubs where, in small groups and safe spaces, deeper discussions can occur. And independent self-selected novels on the theme of loss allows readers to share and compare their characters’ journeys.
The Stars Beneath Our Feet; Free Verse; Coyote Sunrise; Mockingbird; Maybe a Fox; Denis Ever After; Coaltown Jesus; The Shape of Thunder; Planet Earth Is Blue; All We Have Left; The Summer of Letting Go; Long Way Down; The Secrets We Keep; All the Bright Places; I AM Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter; Sadie; Bang; Call Me Adnan; Boy 21; Counting by 7’s; Merci Suarez Plays It Cool; Locomotion; Pieces of Georgia; How to Trap a Tiger; A Home for Goddesses and Dogs; Give and Take; In Your Shoes; A Comb of Wishes; It Doesn’t Take a Genius; Sweeping Up the Heart; Miracle’s Boys; Mixed Up; In Sight of Stars; Fanboy and Gothgirl; A List of Cages; Paradise on Fire; Up from the Sea; Seeing Red; The Usual Rules; The Boy in the Black Suit; Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero; Red, White and Whole; Worser; Clap When You Land; Hope and Other Punchlines; Rebound; How to Build a Heart; Remember Us; Monday’s Not Coming; Parkland Speaks; The Hate U Give; The Someday Suitcase; Seven Clues to Home; The Truth about Jellyfish; Patron Saints of Nothing; The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle; The Dollar Kids; Bridge to Terabithia; Wintergirls; The Pull of Gravity; After the Death of Anna Gonzales, The Fault in Our Stars; Jumper; The Order of Things; Born Behind Bars; Forward Me Back to You; Small As an Elephant; The Last Exit to Normal; Gen & Dixie; Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe; The Weight of Water; Kaleidoscope Eyes; Shouting at the Rain; Tillie Heart and Soul; Fighting Words; All of Me
In this Book Review segment I review 23 more recently published and read Upper Elementary, Middle Grade, and YA novels about characters experiencing loss of parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends. There are some novels that I read a while ago and recommend but have not written reviews.
Here are a total of 76 (52 reviewed) novels to support readers who are grieving a loss and to promote empathy in their peers. -----
A Comb of Wishes by Lisa Stringfellow She pulled out the delicate orange sea glass necklace. A mermaid’s tear. Not of sadness, but of joy. (243)
Folktales, folkcrafts, Caribbean culture and lore—and a fascinating, fantastical story, an interesting array of characters, and exquisite writing which grabbed hold of me and didn’t let go until I finished reading.
Kela is grieving the accidental death of her mother. She also is experiencing intense guilt; the last thing she said to her mother, a professor busy with her study of the island’s folklore, was, “I hate you.” “Three months had gone but still Kela resisted her mother’s death. For a while, Pop seemed to be in the same fog that engulfed her. He stopped going to work, letting George run their business on his own, and hardly left his bedroom.” (71)
When Kela finds a hidden box containing a comb belonging to a mermaid, she doesn’t have to think twice about her one wish, even though “Magic always has a cost and it can be dear. The stronger the magic you invoke, the deeper the consequence.… The consequence of magic is in proportion to its strength.” (83)
This is not your Disney or even Hans Christian Anderson Little Mermaid but the real deal of Caribbean folklore. A trade is struck—the comb for a wish. However, the comb is part of the island’s cultural heritage and, as such, could be claimed by the government and Kela’s father, who is unaware of the treasure, placed in serious trouble. In even worse luck, the comb breaks and then is stolen, and Kela is worried that she has lost her bargaining power—after her wish has been granted. “[Kela] wondered if there was some truth in the old tales. An icy fear crept over her. Who or what might come for her?” (43)
Luckily, Kela has a true friend in Lissy and Lissy’s grandmother, an island storyteller, and, eventually, Ophida herself.
Alternating between Ophida’s and Kela’s stories—past and present—readers can sense the power of story. Part suspense, part fantasy, part mystery, part betrayal, and part love; revenge and salvation, “This is a story”; however, “The story is put on you,” the reader, to interpret. -----
All of Me by Chris Baron Seventh grader Ari Rosensweig is fat, “so big that everyone stares.” (1) He is made fun of, bullied, called names. One time he is beat up, not even trying to defend himself. But he does make one friend, Pick, the only one who tries to learn the real Ari. His parents fight. His mother is an artist, and the family moves frequently, his dad managing his mother’s art business. But when they move to the beach for the summer, Ari’s dad leaves and sees Ari infrequently.
There are times when you feel like you can’t stop eating, because eating is the only way you know how to feel right again. (67-68)
But that summer Ari makes two new friends. And as he has let the haters make him into who he is, he now allows Pick, Lisa, and Jorge help him “to find the real me.” (145) He also receives the support of the rabbi who is training him for his Bar Mitzvah, his conversion to manhood under Jewish law. “’Maybe,’ the rabbi says, ‘it’s as simple as believing that you don’t have to be what others want you to be.’” (225)
His mother suggests a diet, but it seems to be a healthy diet and he sheds pounds. This doesn’t look like me. It can’t be me. I don’t look like this, normal. (209)
On a camping trip with Jorge, Ari discards the diet book. I don’t see a fat kid, not anymore. I simply see myself. (267)
Finally, even though he has gained back some of the pounds (7 of them), he no longer feels like a failure because "it’s not about the weight”; it is about what the summer has brought: adventures, stories, and real friends. Just me moving forward, finding my own way. (311)
Told in lyrical free verse, this is a story that is needed by so many kids. This is not a book about weight; it is the story of identity and friendships—and power over what you can control. -----
Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman Kabir Khan, the son of a Muslim father and Hindu mother, was born behind bars in a prison in Chennai, his mother wrongly accused of a theft before he was born. He has lived his life in deplorable conditions—little food, no privacy, intermittent water availability, and no freedom. His only happiness is being with his Amma and his teacher at the prison school.
But at age 9 his life becomes even worse when, too old to live in prison, he is to be released into the streets. “I tell myself I’m free. I’m outside where I dreamed of going, but I feel like a fish in a net being lifted out of the water I’ve lived in all my life.”(59)
Claimed by a man who says he is his uncle, he faces his first dangerous situation. “My ‘uncle’ is selling me.” (72)
Kabir escapes and navigates the streets with the help of a new friend, the resilient Rana, an adolescent girl who has lived on the streets —and in the trees— and killing her own food—squirrel and crow stews—since her Kurava (Roma) family was attacked, her father killed. She teaches Kabir how to survive street life. He has two goals: to find his father and find a lawyer to release his mother from prison. “I can just imagine Amma walking out of that gray building—me holding one of her hands and my father holding the other.” (93) His command of both Kannada and Tamil languages are an asset and when following his Amma’s wishes to be good, he returns a lady’s lost earring, he and Rana and rewarded with tickets to Bengaluru to find his father’s parents.
In Bengaluru Kabir and Rana learn to trust and find new lives that allow them to both have hope again.
Filled with memorable characters, this emotional story will bring empathy and cultural awareness to upper elementary/middle-grade readers; its short chapters will provide a good read-aloud for teachers, librarians, and parents. -----
Call Me Adnan by Reem Faruqi Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for children one through four. (Author’s Note)
This is Adnan Zakir’s story but it is also a story of family, friends, challenges, loss, grief, guilt, and recovery.
Twelve year old Adnan is colorblind, left-handed, and, most important of all, big brother to 2-1/2 year old Rizwan (and younger brother to sister Aaliyah). His best friends are Sufian and his 12-year-old sister Summar (who may be Adnan’s crush).
All of his friends and family members have their own talents. “Aaliyah: If you give her a ball of play dough, she will turn it into the perfect rose. Sufian: If you give him a basketball, he will swoosh the ball in the net. Summar: If you give her a gumball, she will blow a huge bubble. Me: If you give me a table tennis ball and a paddle, I will challenge you to a match.” (46)
Besides expertise in the Aviation Alphabet (a secret code with his mom) and an interest in aviation, Adnan is a passionate table tennis player and hopes to become a champion and maybe a professional. He practices all the time with his coach, his family members, and his friends. The worst thing he can imagine is losing. “Losing makes me feel awful. Losing makes me want to hide under the table to never feel this way again.” (42)
But when he enters a championship, hoping to make it to finals in Florida where his family can spend Eid with the cousins, tragedy strikes. In Florida, Riz sneaks out of the house and drowns in the pool; Adnan is not only overwhelmed with grief, but with guilt—if he hadn’t entered the table tennis championship and the family hadn’t gone to Florida for the finals, Riz wouldn’t have died. If he had been watching his little brother more closely, Riz wouldn’t have gotten to the pool. His coach helps him move to the last stage of flight (thrust > weight > drag > lift)
Narrated in free verse by Adnan, his thoughts come alive by the intermittent use of typeface that create visual images: o p n And my feet are p p i g like kernels my sweat d r i p p i n g like butter
This is a story that will engage readers and support and acknowledge those who have experienced loss and grief. -----
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo One plane crash. One father’s death. Two families’ loss.
Papi boards the same flight every year. (18) This year when her father leaves for his annual 3 months in his homeland, Yahaira knows the secret he has kept for 17 years. But she is unaware of who else knows. Not Camino, the other daughter who is practically Yahaira’s twin. Camino only knows she has a Papi who lives and works in New York City nine months a year to support her and the aunt who has raised her since her mother died.
When Papi’s plane crashes on its way from New York to the Dominican Republic, all passengers lose their lives and many families are left grieving. But none are more affected than the two daughters who loved their Papi, the two daughters whose mothers he had married.
Sixteen year old Yahaira lives in NYC, a high school chess champion until she discovered her father’s secret second marriage certificate and stopped speaking to him and stopped competing, and has a girlfriend who is an environmentalist and a deep sense of what’s right. “This girl felt about me/how I felt about her.” (77) Growing up in NYC, Yahaira was raised Dominican.
Sixteen year old Camino’s mother died quite suddenly when she was young, and she and her aunt, the community spiritual healer, are dependent on the money her father sends. Not wealthy by any means, they are the considered well-off in the barrio where Papi was raised; Camino goes to a private school and her father pays the local sex trafficker to leave her alone. And then the plane crash occurs. Two months to seventeen, two dead parents, & an aunt who looks worried Because we both know, without my father, Without his help, life as we’ve known it has ended. (105)
Camino’s goal has always been to move to New York, live with her father, and study to become a doctor at Columbia University. Finding out about her father’s family in New York, she makes a plan with her share of the insurance money from the airlines. But Yahaira has her own plan—to go to her father’s Dominican burial despite the wishes of her mother, meet this sister, and explore her culture.
After the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 just two months after 9/11/2001, it was sometimes a spontaneous reaction for passengers to clap when the plane landed, one of “the many ways Dominicans celebrate touching down onto our island.” (Author’s Note). -----
Dollar Kids by Jennifer Richard Jacobson I cried because there were sad events and frustrating events, and I cried because there were happy and poignant occasions. But I also cried because the book came to an end, and, even though author Jennifer Richard Jacobson gave us a hint into the future, I didn’t want to leave Millville and its inhabitants, both old and new, especially the Dollar Kids.
I don’t know if today’s children of all ages face more challenges than those who came before them or whether, through reading, my eyes have been open to challenges that children face and have always faced. As Jacobson opened our eyes to the plight of homeless children through her memorable character ¬¬¬¬¬Ari in Paper Things, in her new novel Dollar Kids she shows readers the effect of loss and guilt on a young adolescent.
Eleven-year-old Lowen is one of the Dollar Kids whose families move to Millville to take advantage of the dollar houses offered to deserving applicants to restore. Lowen’s family is looking for a new beginning away from the city where his young friend was a victim of a fatal shooting in a grocery store. Lowen feels loss, but he also feels guilt because didn’t he send Abe to the store to get rid of his constant questions and suggestions? This is his secret, and when Lowen, his older brother Clem, his sister Anneth, and his British mum move (father to follow) into the Albatross, their dilapidated dollar house, he struggles with this snake inside him as he also contends with making friends, competing in sports, resuming his drawing, and helping his mother make a success of her new business. As he connects with the Millville inhabitants and reconnects with his family, he learns to find peace in the unseen force.
What I appreciated is the diversity of characters, especially in age. Many authors offer us books that have characters of a particular age, and it has been said that most readers like to read about characters who are at least their age or older. While the main character Lowen is eleven, there are plenty of characters who are younger and older, and an array of both male and female characters. Even the adult characters are diverse and interesting. There are also sports, art, and music, as these characters have an array of talents as well as a range of family situations. But what they all have in common is the hope that Millville will survive, and they find it “takes a village,” working together to make that happen.
Lowen is a cartoonist who finds a place in the town as a caricaturist, and an engaging and effective feature of the novel is the graphics by Ryan Andrews. Lowen uses these comics to manage, and explore, his grief and guilt.
Being from a small town, I can appreciate the Millvillians who know everything about everyone—or so they think, bicker and compete, but can be counted on in a crisis. -----
Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley “I told you, nobody goes into foster care for good reasons. Foster care might be better than anything you’ve ever had in your life so far, and it still will never be as good as what you should have had. If the family you were born into was what it should have been.” (175)
Della and her older sister Suki were not born into a family that was “what it should have been,” what every family should be, even minimally. Their mother was incarcerated and her parental rights terminated for blowing up a motel room cooking meth. The girls never knew who their fathers were, and with their mother in prison, they continued to live with Clifton, their mother’s boyfriend. Suki, a young child herself, raised her six-years-younger sister, keeping her own secret to keep Della safe—until the night that Suki was out, Clifton came home, and Della, now ten years old, was no longer safe. The sisters escaped, Clifton was arrested, and the girls went to live with Francine, a product of foster care herself.
Della, the narrator of the story, finally makes friends at her new school and begins a somewhat normal life. When Francine takes her for a walk in a park, she notes, “Some people passed us because they were walking faster than us. Other people passed us from other directions. Some of them had dogs on leashes sniffing the dirt. It was a lot of people doing something I never knew people did.” (164), and my reading heart broke.
Through Francine, her new fiend Neveah, the friends she makes at the Y program, Maybelline at Food City, Coach Tony, and even Dr. Penny, her school principal, Della finds the strength to organize the girls to stand up to classmate Trevor who sexually harasses them, to her teacher who ignores their complaints, and to Clifton in her own court case. After Suki attempts suicide and Della learns her secret, she has the strength to help Suki re-gain her strength to face Clifton, at least through videotaped testimony.
When she goes for therapy, her psychologist tells her, “What Clifton did to you and Suki—that’s common.”… “Honestly?” Dr Fremont said. “You’re probably not the only kid it’s happened to in your class.” (200) According to the Department of Justice and the CDC, “one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the time they reach age eighteen.…Among other things, children who are sexually abused are over ten times more likely to attempt suicide than those who aren’t. “ (Author’s Note)
It is imperative that this story and stories like that are in classrooms for those who need it. As Nevaeh explains her love for a certain book in which the character lives in a car, “I was glad, you know, to read it in a book. To know that it didn’t only happen to me.” (121) In Fighting Words Della shares the worst part of the story—but she also is able to share “the very best part of this story.” (259) -----
Gem & Dixie by Sara Zarr “It’s not like I get hit. I don’t get touched. I don’t get threatened.… We don’t always have food but I manage to eat.… I take care of my sister.” “But what does it take to be in danger? What does that even mean? Are things not bad enough? Should things be worse for me before…before I can make them better?”
Gem has been organizing her life and taking care of her younger sister Dixie and her mother most of her life. Her philandering father was kicked out and is a rare presence in their lives, and her mother drinks and uses drugs. I was drawn to Gem from the very beginning when the reader first encounters her as a child taking care of Dixie and leading her on “adventures” in their apartment.
As the sisters enter high school, popular, pretty Dixie grows away from the Gem, accepting life as it is and making it work for her. We see Gem, a high school junior, hustling quarters to buy lunch because her father is long gone and her mother won’t fill out the paperwork for free lunches. My heart broke for her as, alone and friendless and somewhat sister-less, she navigates life with the help of her school psychologist Mr. Bergstrom.
Their father’s return leads to an opportunity for the sisters to leave on a real adventure and although they bond for a few days, Dixie opts to return home while Gem, even though she still worries about Dixie, takes the solution that can make her own life better.
Author Sara Zarr created a character who broke my heart even while I was rooting for her.
“Everything that happened, it was only because we wanted our parents to be better, to know how to take care of us." -----
How to Build a Heart by Maria Padian Children who experience the loss of a parent or other family member through a military line-of-duty death are likely to face a number of unique issues. Izzy’s father died when she was ten, before her younger brother Jack was born. Her small family, estranged from her father’s relatives, has moved from place to place as her mother, a nurse’s aide, tries to support them.
When she moves to a a trailer park in Virginia, Isabella Crawford becomes embroiled in the family drama of her best friend, and, as a member of the acapella group at the private school where she is a scholarship student, she befriends a freshman who is battling her own demons. To make her life even more complicated, her family becomes the recipient of a Habit for Humanity house, and Izzy has to volunteer hours towards its construction.
In the midst of all this drama, Izzy, who is determined to keep her family’s circumstances a secret from her classmates, discovers what friendship and trusting friends—and family—really means as she reconnects with her father’s pig-farming family and finds that her wealthy friends and her new boyfriend care about her, not her economic status.
Izzy, an adolescent straddled between two cultures—that of her Puerto Rican mother and her North Carolina father—is not quite sure where she belongs but learns to share her world with others. She is a memorable, well-developed character whom I did not want to leave at the end of the book. -----
It Doesn’t Take a Genius by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich “I don’t even like debate, to be honest. But I’m good at it, and I learned early on that’s what matters. People love a winner. When you win, everyone sees you. And if people don’t see you, maybe you’re not really there.” (8)
Thirteen-year-old Emmett Charles is a winner, or at least at his school where his vocabulary, three debate trophies, science fair award, and Spelling Bee record have him feeling he might even be a genius.
And when his social skills and small size fail him, his older brother Luke is always there to bail him out, especially with Mac, his bully. “Luke has come out of nowhere. Like a superhero. He’s even taller than Mac, wears his shirts a little small so girls can peep his muscles, and his fade is tight and gleaming.” (6-7)
Emmett depends on Luke. “Sometimes it feels like I’m in a river, and the current’s real strong. And I have a choice between clinging to a rock and getting left behind, or letting myself get swept up in it and carried along without any control. Luke’s my rock.” (138) But when Luke is given an art scholarship to a private school in Maine for his last year of high school, summer is all Emmett, or E as he wants to be called, will have for Luke to turn him back into a winner after he passed on competing in this year’s debate championship. “We’re a team. Batman and Robin.” (29)
But when he discovers that Luke has gotten a job as a junior counselor at Camp DuBois, a historic Black summer camp in New York, Emmett schemes to get himself a scholarship to attend as a camper.
When he arrives, he discovers that 1) his brother will be too busy to spend any time with him; 2) the camp is filled with “geniuses” and nerds——who become new friends who have his back; 3) he will be learning more of his culture and history through classes like “Black to the Future,” and the camp focuses on community, not individual success. He finally realizes that “DuBois is preparing me for something more than bubble tests, more than I’d ever thought it would.” (190); 4) even though he is a great dancer, he is an even better choreographer; 5) although he sees himself as a winner, without maximum effort and by spreading himself too thin, he can lose, more than he thought; 6) and finally, he will be required to take swimming lessons and pass the swimming test, an activity he has so far avoided and plans to avoid. “What my friends, and my family for that matter, don’t seem to understand is that I don’t swim. I guess they get the fact that I can’t. But they keep thinking that I will, one day. That I even want to. And they’re WRONG. Dad was supposed to teach me, and he’s not here.” (19) Emmett’s father died when he was 5, and Luke and his mother don’t discuss his father with him which saddens him. Swimming was something they were to do together.
7) And most important Emmett discovers, as Natasha says, “It doesn’t take a genius to be a friend.” (291)
E’s story is filled with memorable characters: the socially-awkward Charles who can “do you” the best I have seen; Charles’ love interest and budding playwright Michelle; Emmett’s crush Natasha who does win at everything but is just as happy when the camp director decides there will be no final competitions; the alleged-bully Derek who is able to spend more time with Luke than Emmett does, but, as is often the case, is more complex than presumed; and the assortment of other campers, counselors, and group leaders. Readers will learn not only a lot of Black history but the importance of studying one’s cultural roots. -----
Jumper by Melanie Crowder Blair Scott has a passion – firefighting. She has a goal—to become a smoke jumper even though she is only 19 years old. But Blair also has a secret—she has Type 1 Diabetes, a condition which could keep her from reaching her goal.
Luckily, Blair has an aunt, a biomedical engineer, who has physically trained her to withstand and adapt to strenuous conditions and has modified her diabetes equipment and a Smart watch to monitor her. And she has Jason, her best friend, who follows her when, in exceptionally active fire year, they are both accepted into U.S. Forest Service smokejumper training.
Blair feels she has to take risks and prove herself as, not only a young recruit, but especially as a woman.
This is a novel of adventure, danger, courage, passion, friendships, support, grief, and, most of all, the power of fire. Well-researched, the novel provides a vast amount of information about wildfire and firefighting training and protocols and will appeal to many teen readers. -----
Merci Suarez Plays It Cool by Meg Medina True friends feed us in lots of ways. (310)
Merci’s story continues in the summer before 8th grade. All her friends are away. Things at Las Casitas haven’t changed much although her aunt is still dating Simon, Roli can’t afford his next year of premed and is home working at Walgreen’s and planning to attend the local junior college, and Marci’s grandfather Lolo’s Alzheimer’s is worsening. And all of a sudden, Marco, the twins’ father, shows up for the first time in years.
Before school begins, Tia pays for Merci to get a new haircut. “’Imagine walking into school looking like someone brand-new. Merci 2.0.’ I sit there blinking at the thought of being upgraded. Should I want to be someone new?’” (81) The new haircut is a success, but Merci questions, “But what about the old me? I wonder. Where will she go?” (82)
Merci has never been part of the popular crowd, but she has friends—Hannah, Lena, Edna (sort of a frenenemy), and Wilson who is a great friend but also possibly becoming a crush. The popular girls, Avery and Mackenzie, are Merci’s soccer teammates, and she keeps hoping that they may become friends. “The whole time, though, I’m watching everyone at Avery’s table from the corner of my eye. Those kids are magnets, even though I don’t want them to be. What is it, I wonder, that makes them seem so cool? And more important, are they?” (107)
The year fluctuates between highs and lows.
At school Merci earns a position as an aid in the guidance office where she becomes aware that some students meet in support groups, the surprise being Edna who is working to improve her social skills, and when soccer practice begins, Merci shows her leadership skills in guiding a new sixth grader to success. Wilson and Merci’s friendship continues to grow and so do her feelings for him, and, when he offers her a ticket to the football game, she wonders if it is a date. Lolo becomes worse. At times he doesn’t even recognize Merci, who is devastated at the loss of her best friend. Finally, the family hires him an aid.
When the 8th graders begin planning their October Field Trip to St Augustine, Merci is invited to share a room with her friends but also with the popular Avery, Mackenzie, and Lindsey. “It will be a soccer-team room.” Of course, she knows it may be just because her soccer teammates, “…don’t want to get stuck with someone random.” (171) When her friends find out that, even though she plans to room with them, she has not turned Avery down, she risks losing them.
During the field trip when Merci sneaks out of her room with her friends to meet Avery and her friends to play sardines, a tragedy occurs. Lolo has had a stroke and, before Mami can drive Merci home from St. Augustine, he dies. Overwhelmed by grief, Merci learns who her true friends are. Returning to school in a daze, she has forgotten to bring her lunch. Her friends notice and “A few minutes later, they come back with their trays. Lena hands me half a roast beef sandwich. Hanna has bought an extra carton of milk and a bag of my favorite chips. Edna sets down a slice of a la carte key lime pie near my elbow. ‘Extra whipped cream,’ she says. ‘I had to beg.’” (309-310) And when Wilson gave Merci the gifts for the twins she was unable to buy when she left the trip, unable to visit the pirate museum, she feels “This is like something that wants to lift me into the air. He didn’t leave me stranded when he thought we were in trouble with Miss McDaniels for playing sardines. And when I disappeared from the trip, he thought about what I would miss.…Lolo would have called Wilson a caballero.” (329)
Merci’s 3+ series (a short story and three books) ends with valuable lessons about friendship, family, and loss to help adolescents navigate the hard parts of life. -----
Mixed Up by Gordon Korman “Some things that happen are so big you’re never the same afterward.” (ARC 39)
Seventh grader Reef Moody is grieving the death of his mother a year ago. He has set himself off from his friends, especially Portia, the girl he likes. He is convinced that he contracted Covid from Portia at her party—a party he begged his mother to let him attend—and passed it to his mother who died a few weeks later, and he is riddled with guilt. He was taken in by his mother’s best friend, but her teen children are not happy with the situation, especially Declan who bullies Reef continually and even gets him into trouble with the school principal.
And strangely, Reef’s memories of his mother are growing dim; he can hardly remember her face and he doesn’t know why. But he does have vivid memories from a life that he knows is not his, a life with a yard and a garden and a rabbit named Jaws. And a few times he has executed karate moves.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town lives Theo Metzinger, a seventh grader who takes karate and grows vegetable and fights with his nemesis, a rabbit named Jaws. Theo is much of a loner to the disappointment of his father, who, as an adolescent, “ruled the school.” And lately Theo is having memories of a lady and feeling an unbearable sadness. When Theo, at his school, begins seeing a different school—different tiles, different walls, a different walkway, and a cupola, he begins investigating and locates Delgado Middle School on the other side of town where he meets Portia and eventually Reef. “At last [Theo] begins, ‘There are things I remember that I know for a fact never happened to me.’ ‘Me too!’ [Reef] jumps in breathlessly.” (ARC 94)
Reef is not happy to meet Theo who he feels is stealing his life, at least his past. “It hits me: If Theo has access to my memories. How can he remember what I can’t. The answer is so obvious: He’s not sharing my memories; he’s stealing them.” (ARC 97-98) But as the two boys lose more and more memories and have to rely on each other more and more, they realize they need to solve the mystery. Theo realizes that Reef has a lot to lose—his life with his mother. Discovering that they were born on the same day in the same hospital, they research the possible cause of this strange phenomenon and plan a dangerous experiment to reverse it, aided by, strangely enough, Declan.
Told in alternating narratives, this is a story of friendship, family, and the importance of memories. “Memory: the mental process of registering, storing, and retrieving information.” (ARC 102), but so much more. -----
Paradise on Fire by Jewell Parker Rhodes To know yourself, you need to journey, Adaugo. Remember what’s forgotten. (7)
“I need to see everything. I need to know where to run, where to hide…where to stay. Where to fly. Escape. Flee. From what? My mind answers, ‘Fire.’” (64)
Adaugo is enrolled in Wilderness Adventures, a summer camp in Paradise, California, for a group of six Black teens from eastern cities. There she meets fellow campers Jay, Nessa, Kelvin, A’Leia, DeShon and counselors Jamie and Dylan. Most importantly—and advantageously, she meets Leo, the ranch owner and avid environmentalist, and his dog Ryder.
Pretty much a loner, Addy lives with her Nigerian grandmother, her Bibi, who has raised her ever since her parents were killed in a house fire when her mother threw the four-year-old Adaugo out the window to fly to safety. Since then, Addy is obsessed with mazes, maps, escape routes.
At the camp the adolescents learn to hike, climb, repel, and respect nature. Addy sees them all becoming stronger, more of what they can be. “We’re pulling far, far,…farther away from being our old selves, just city kids. I’m becoming new. More me.” (87)
Leo observes Addy’s needs and teaches her how to read maps and map the natural environment. He knows that in the forest everyone needs an escape route. “Forests burn. Animals’ homes are destroyed. As our planet warms, there are more heat related deaths.” (119) However, “97 percent of wildfires are ignited by people.” (Afterword, 244)
When the six teens and their counselors leave for their final hike and campout, fire breaks out and the group disagrees on the best way out of the forest. Dylan and Jaime insist on hiking north where the ranch is, taking Kelvin and A’Leia with them, while Addy’s instincts tell her to go the opposite way, toward water. She is convinced there is a way out. “There’s always a way out. Use your mind, your heart.” (157) Jay, Nessa, and DeShon follow her, believe in her.
On a harrowing journey, the four, led by Addy, work together, employing the skills and knowledge they have cultivated on their city streets and in the wilderness. Addy realizes, “Jay’s awesome; Nessa’s kind; and DeShon’s actually a good guy. They’re my crew—never had one before. Who knew? Never knew how much I needed one.” (158) “Survival is more than just me.” (205)
This is a survival story, featuring a teen who is resilient and caring and learns to rely on her instincts— and learns a love for nature. It is a novel filled with details, and information, and will engage readers looking for adventure and readers who are future environmentalists and anyone who loves beautiful language and imagery: “Pancake clouds float. Mountain clouds burst, scatter as the plane flies through them.” (9) Written in short sentences, it a novel appropriate for both emerging and proficient readers and even though the characters are teens is appropriate for grades 4 and up. -----
Rebound by Kwame Alexander “I want to be the hero in my story.” (339) The year Charlie Bell turned twelve many good things were supposed to happen, but his father died suddenly, and Charlie began to lose his way. His dad was “a star in our neighborhood” but on March 9, 1988, Charlie’s “star exploded.” A good kid, with his best friend Skinny, he starts making bad decisions—skipping school, taking part in stealing an elderly neighbor’s deposit bottles. Even his smart friend CJ, a girl who might become more than a friend, can’t keep him on track. And his life began to revolve around his comics.
Then his mother sends Charlie to spend the summer with his grandparents on their “farm.” Through his grandmother’s love and his grandfather’s work ethic, and most of all, through his cousin Roxie’s obsession with basketball, the re-named Chuck discovers a love for basketball, and he learns to “rebound on the court. And off.” (2)
I became immediately caught up in the rhythm and rhyme of the free verse, and font size, style, and spacing were effectively employed throughout the narrative. However there were a lot of pages devoted to couplet dialogue that broke the rhythm and became somewhat monotonous. Many readers will be engaged by the graphics, comic book style, that are scattered throughout. One disappointment was many erroneous cultural references, pointed out by those reviewers more in tuned with the 80’s than I.
However, I fell in love with Charlie/Chuck and all the other characters, especially granddaddy Percival Bell and cousin Roxie Bell. In fact, I would love to see a novel featuring the young Miss Bell herself. This was definitely a character-driven novel.
A prequel to The Crossover—Charlie is the twins father—this book would serve as a companion reading and can stand on its own, although I am not sure that the last section, set in 2018, would make sense to those who had not read The Crossover. -----
Red, White and Whole by Rajani LaRocca I listen to my mother. Always. But I am an American, I was born here, it’s the only home I know. So I’m caught between the life I want to lead And the one she thinks I should. (4)
Thirteen-year-old Reha was born in America. Her parents married in India and moved to America for a better life, and Amma is very traditional and has strict expectations for their only child. Reha is sent to a private school where… At school I swim in a river of white skin And blond hair and brown hair And blue eyes and green eyes and hazel, School subjects and giggles about boys, Salad and sandwiches. (1) When you are different You constantly compare… My mother-made clothes are funny My jeans are not the fashionable kind. They notice that my hair is black and thick My eyes are darkest brown And my skin is different from everyone else’s. (33) But also … on weekends, I float in a sea of brown skin and black hair and dark eyes, MTV music videos and giggles about boys, Samosa and sabjis. (1)
Reha lives in two worlds. She has two best friends, Sunita (“Sunny”) whom she has known since age two but whose Indian family is more modern than hers and Rachel, a Jewish girl who is as serious about her studies as Reha. And she visits her relatives in India in the summer. But she does hope to fit in better in school and be permitted to go to the school dance and even dance with her new friend Pete.
After the dance (the one time Reha feels likes she fits in), Amma becomes very ill with leukemia. Since Amma works in a laboratory, Reha, who faints at the sight of blood, knows all about its components: [Amma] counts the red cells, that carry oxygen, the platelets. that stop bleeding, and the white cells, the warriors protecting us from invaders. At least If they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. Cells and plasma together are called whole blood, which is what flows inside us. (27)
Unfortunately Amma’s blood is not doing what it is supposed to, and neither her older sister, who is pregnant, nor Reha are viable bone marrow donors. During this difficult time, Reha discovers that her school friends do care about her. …all the other girls, the ones who seemed too caught up with their clothes and hair and nails reach out to squeeze my arm pull me into hugs murmur words of encouragement. And it turns out I have yet another family, one I never thought to call my own. (111)
Reha hopes that if she is the best and most virtuous she can be, Amma will heal. But, sadly, that is not to be. I have two lives. The one Before and the one After. (193)
Reha now has her father, Sunny, Rachel, Pete, her Indian community, and her school community and her aunt and uncle and baby Chandra in India. And unexpectedly a letter arrives from her mother, written before her death. She believed I didn’t need to be split in two, that I could be whole. and now I start to believe it, too. (206) I have one life, where I try to merge all the places I’m from, India and America, mother and father, past, present, and future. (209)
With characters who became so real, I cried with them like a member of the family, this is a story of being a part of two worlds—as are many of our readers—and feeling that you are different—as do most of our adolescent readers at one time or another.
A 2022 Newbery Honor Book. -----
Remember Us by Jacqueline Woodson I have been wrestling with how to accurately describe the writing in this newest text. I would say the writing is her most poetic even though it is not written in poetry. Chapters are short, written as we live our lives and relive our memories—in bursts, in thoughts, some shorter, some longer. This is a narrative of growing up rather than a coming-of-age tale. ----- “Palmetto. A word that has never left me. A word that in my mind is evergreen. Palmetto. The name for both a stunning tree and an oversize cockroach. Palmetto was also the name of a street in my old neighborhood. And that year, Palmetto Street was burning.” (ARC 2)
Set in the 1970’s Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, twelve-year old Sage lives in a neighborhood labeled “The Matchbox” because of the constant fires, leading to a lot of “once was” memories but also “evergreen” memories. One such was her father, a fireman who died a hero.
Sage’s life centers around basketball; her goal is to become the first female on the NBA. When she meets a new neighbor, Freddy, they become fast friends and fellow basketball aficianados. But one day when shooting baskets alone, Sage is confronted with a bully who asks her, “What kind of girl are you, anyway?” and she begins to doubt herself; in her thoughts, his words “erase” her. He steals the basketball that had belonged to her father, and she ceases playing.
“For a long time, I had thought there was only one thing that could take all that you loved away.
And that one thing was fire.” (ARC 73)
When a young boy dies in a fire, Sage realizes “how quickly time [goes] by” (ARC 117) which leads to thinking about her daddy and how is smiled when watching her play ball, and she decides to return to basketball, sharing the incident with Freddy. When she tells him about the boy’s remark, he answers, “You’re the Sage kind [of girl].” [ARC 118]
Readers live among the close community where Sage’s mother works and hopes to become a writer and carries blankets to those who houses burn. And saves enough that she and Sage can move to a neighborhood with houses made of brick, the brick that Sage and Freddy longed for. “We wanted the permanence of their brick. The security of their stone.” (ARC 44) But when it is possible, “I didn’t know one body could have so many feelings inside it at the same time—excitement and heartbreak and fear.” (ARC 134)
This is a story of a community and a story of memories. Who and what we remember and “Who else remembers us” (ARC 172) -----
Sadieby Courtney Summers And so it begins, as so many stories do, with a dead girl. (1)
Cold Creek, Colorado. Population: 800. Nineteen-year-old Sadie Hunter’s younger sister was murdered—not far from the trailer park where they lived. Mattie was the sister Sadie loved with all her heart and raised from the time Mattie was born but especially after their mother, Claire, left. Sadie is sure she knows who murdered Mattie—their mother’s ex-boyfriend who abused 10-year-old Sadie and possibly Mattie, the man whom they knew as Keith but others knew under a variety of names in different towns.
Sadie takes off to avenge her sister’s death, following lead after lead, determined to track down Keith and kill him. And along the way she finds other victims—and other perpetrators.
Three months after Sadie’s car is found abandoned and law enforcement has declared her “another runaway,” her surrogate grandmother, May Beth Foster, reaches out to radio personality Wes McCray, the WNRK New York producer of the show Always Out There, as her last hope of finding Sadie. “I can’t take another dead girl.” (9)
As he searches for Sadie, interviewing people who knew her, detectives in the towns Sadie traveled through, and those who came in contact with her during her quest, following leads and hunches, at times wishing his boss would let him quit the assignment, Wes becomes more consumed as the story that will become his serialized podcast develops.
Alternating chapters between “The Girls” podcast episodes with its in-person and phone interviews and Sadie’s first-person account from the day she left, we learn about the strong, resilient, resourceful teen who grew up in poverty, without love, bullied because of a stutter, whose only concern is avenging Mattie’s death and saving children like her.
Girls go missing all the time. (15)
I read this mesmerizing novel with its well-crafted story and heart-breaking heroine in one day. I have read many good MG/YA novels lately, but it has been a while since I have read a book I couldn’t put down. -----
Shouting at the Rain by Lynda Mullaly Hunt Just like Ally (Fish in a Tree) and Carley (One for the Murphys), Lynda Mullaly Hunt has created a third character who has come to live in my heart—Delsie who is always barefooted and lives by the news from her weather station.
Delsie was raised by her game-show-watching Grammy and grandfather, Papa Joseph, since her mother deserted her shortly after birth. None of them ever knew who her father is. However, Delsie never thought of herself as an orphan until the complicated summer which began when her friend, playing the role of Annie, asks her, “What’s it like…really like…to be an orphan.” (2)
Delsie lives on Cape Cod, summer home to tourists, where Grammy cleans guest cottages and they live in a tiny community of four houses where everyone is each other’s family and support system. Papa Joseph has died, and they all miss him and try to fill his space.
The summer before seventh grade is a rollercoaster for Delsie. Her summer best friend, Brandy, is changing; she worrying about getting messy and then befriends the new girl Tressa, a classic Mean Girl.
Luckily, Ronan moves in with his father, and he stands up to the Mean Girls on Delsie’s behalf, and he and Delsie become friends, sharing feelings of abandonment by their mothers and, therefore, being broken. At first Delsie feels like she has to lie to become friends with the girls (“I remember pretending to know things and like things I didn’t just because I wanted them to like me.”), but with Ronan, “I don’t have to lie about who I am.” (99) As family friend Esme tells Delsie, “…anything that matters in this whole…wide…world is about connection.” (83) What begins as a summer of abandonments becomes a summer of connections.
At the end of the summer, Delsie realizes two things: that people, such as the sour Olive, may have their own problems but also may be more caring then others realize or expect (“…instead of just a plain scoop of cold ice cream, a scoop with some chocolate chips hidden inside.”) (180) and that “Knowing that I have real friends that have my back and will protect my feelings—people like Aimee, Michael, and Ronan—makes all the difference.” (240) This pivotal summer Delsie learns a lot about her neighbors, about family, and about support and love.
Reading the novel was also a rollercoaster for me. I was sad about Delsie’s history, mad at how she was being treated by Brandy and Tressa, and glad that she was able to recognize her true friends and revise her definition of family. I know that middle-graders reading this book will identify with some parts of Delsie’s and Ronan’s lives and maybe those who don’t, will see themselves in Brandy or Tressa and gain some empathy and understanding. -----
The Order of Things by Kaija Langley “Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda said something, told somebody, if I hadn’t made that stupid promise.” (139)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2,000 young, seemingly healthy people under age 25 in the United States die each year of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). (Author’s Note)
Eleven-year-olds April and Zander Jr (Zee) are best friends and fellow music lovers. Zee plays the violin and has just transferred to a school which can take his playing to the next level. April yearns to become a drummer but is just beginning lessons with Zee’s father.
April lives with her single mom (“single by choice”) and Zee lives with his postman father, a former musician. “Zee’s mom was a woman with music in her bones who went searching for a melody, a song only she could hear, and never returned.” (94)
When Zee works day and night, hoping for the solo in the school concert, he faints and confides in April that his heart sometimes races but makes her promise not to tell anyone, a promise that April takes seriously. When he experiences SCA and dies April is tormented by guilt.
In her grief April is struggling with the idea that her mother has a serious girlfriend and that Mr. Zee is not handling his son’s death—April finds undelivered mail in his closet which she then takes upon herself to deliver.
When doing so, she finds out why her classmate, and possibly new friend, Asa misses so much school and is always hungry. After experiencing the dire consequences of keeping Zee’s secret, she knows that this is not a secret she should keep. “I only know that I didn’t let what I knew go unspoken. Not this time.” (257)
Written in verse, Kaija Langley’s new novel will provide a map to help preteens—and teens—navigate the hard decisions in life. -----
The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga With most novels I have to slide into the lives of characters, getting to know them over chapters so I can care about them and their challenges, but Jasmine Warga’s newest characters, Cora and Quinn, entered my heart in their first two chapters of their story.
Former best friends, the twelve-year-olds became estranged the previous November 11th when Porter, Quinn’s older brother, killed Cora’s sister Mabel in a school shooting. Cora is consumed with grief as Quinn becomes consumed with guilt.
Cora mother left when she was a toddler, and she and Mabel were raised by their Lebanese father and maternal grandmother. Cora and Quinn were best friends from age two. Cora was always there to help Quinn when her brain had a “Freeze-Up” and she had trouble getting words out; Quinn was there to make the serious Cora laugh.
Mabel was the perfect sister until she started high school and started acting like a “big sister”; Porter was the typical big brother—one of Quinn’s memories was when he helped her climb down from a very tall tree—until he changed and became mean, spending most of his time in his room on the Internet. “I know it’s in this room that he decided to become the type of person who did the horrible things that he did. It’s in this room that he decided to become full of hate. I glance all around, looking for the clues of what led him to it, but I don’t find any.”(96) And then came the day he took his father’s gun to the high school and shot Mabel and two others. Was it because Mabel was Muslim? Why were the other two—a student and a teacher—shot?
It is almost a year from the killings when Quinn reads that some scientists believe in the possibility of time travel, and she hatches a plan for Cora and her to travel back in time to save Mabel and maybe even save Porter. Even though Cora blames Quinn for her brother’s actions and refuses to have anything to do with her, Quinn realizes that Cora, a collector of facts and research, will be hooked by the idea of time travel. “Her mind is like a treasure chest of mid-blowing facts. And when she shares them with you, it makes you start to believe that the world is actually a pretty amazing place. It makes you see everything a little differently.”(62) As Quinn hopes, Cora is intrigued and desperate to save Mabel.
As the two girls work together to locate a wormhole, I, not usually a fan of novels about magic or fantasy, started praying for magic to happen. “’And the thing I know about magic is that you have to look for it,’ Quinn says.” (123). Through the story told in alternating chapters, my heart broke for the two of them. I looked for magic and found it in this novel. -----
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller Long, long ago, when tiger walked like man… – Korean folktale
Folktales relate the stories of a culture but they recount and extend the stories of folk and families. They are universal, but when it is your story, “It’s special.” (68)
Lily feels she is invisible, a QAG (quiet Asian girl); sometimes it is her magic power. And she depends on her older sister Sam. But when Lily, her mother, and sister move back to Washington state to help her Halmoni, who is dying of cancer, Lily can no longer be invisible. To try to save her grandmother, she needs to face the tiger that only she nelieves in. Lily’s Halmoni tells her, “… the world is bigger than what we see.” (32) “When you believe [in you], that is you being brave. Sometimes, believing is the bravest thing of all.” (51)
But Lily learns that sometimes you don’t save the person; it is enough to believe in the traditions of the culture and share the stories of the people.
“It’s kind of like these folktales have a mind of their own. Like they’re floating around the world, waiting for somebody to come along and tell them.” (68)
Stories are important. The librarian tells Lily, “The thing I’ve learned is that stories aren’t about order and organization. They’re about feelings. And feelings don’t always make sense. See, stories are like … Water. Like rain. We can hold them tight, but they always slip through our fingers.”…But remember that water gives us life. It connects continents. It connects people. And in quiet moments, when the water’s still, sometimes we can see our own reflection.” (206)
Magic. Family. Friendships. Loss. Stories. And the most beautiful writing (Teachers will want to use passages as writing mentor texts). I read in two days, the writing, the characters (even new friend Ricky), and the story swirling through me. -----
Worser by Jennifer Ziegler “He thought of Mr. Murray’s parting quip: ‘Go home before you can’t recognize your family anymore.’” (98)
Will Orser, unfortunately nicknamed Worser by his classmates when his name was listed as W. Orser, is a wordsmith. Everything about words and wordplay intrigues him. And he used to share this passion with his mother. But Professor Orser suffered a severe stroke and has not only lost her speech but the person she once was, and Worser’s life has changed (or become worser).
Worser’s father died when he was four, and it has been just his mother and him. Until now. Aunt Iris has moved in, and with all her quirkiness and “smothering,” has taken over the household. She has not only filled the living room with her p-ohms (sculptures for meditating), but she washes the clothes that have been sitting in a laundry basket for who-knows-how-long, buys Worser new clothes that fit and are more fashionable, and, worse of all, has his mother singing and laughing. “What did he want? Worser stared at his sullen expression in the mirror. He wanted to go back to before his mother’s stroke, that’s what.” (109)
But Worser is also changing. Always a loner who sought solitude, he starts hanging out more with Herbie, also an outsider. When the school library closes, he is forced to find a new place to work on his Masterwork of words. He bargains for a table in the Re-Visions Book Store owned by the sullen and ufriendly Mr. Murray and develops a crush on Donya Khoury, leader of the school Lit Club. When the Lit Club needs a meeting place, Worser talks Mr. Murray into letting them meet at Re-Visions, and, surprisingly, he becomes part of the group. “Worser headed out of the bookstore feeling changed. It was a mood he hadn’t experienced in quite a while. He pondered the right word as he headed home.…There was only one word that could be right. A word he wouldn’t have thought possible—especially since his mother’s illness. ‘Happy.’” (135)
But Donya starts hanging out with Turk, Worser’s bully (or so he feels) and a mangler of language (or so it appears); his mother’s recovery will be taking longer than hoped; and everything starts going downhill—until Worser commits an act that has significant repercussions‚ both negative and positive.
This is a story about learning to accept help. Worser, renamed Worder acknowledges, “We can speak about the future, but the verb doesn’t change from its present-tense form. It’s only though the use of auxiliary verbs like ‘will’ that we denote future tense.…The only way we can get out of the present and into the future is with help.” (234)
This is a story with well-developed characters about having parents with challenges, friendship, loss, and acceptance and will be a mirror and a map for some of our readers and a window for others, creating empathy for their peers. ------------------ The website BOOK REVIEWS drop-down menu includes reviews of novels on other topics, genres, and writing formats.