Everyone experiences loss differently, but death has become all too common in our children’s worlds. The statistics are overwhelming:
- In 2018, a total of 2,839,205 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.
- 1 in 5 children will experience the death of someone close to them by age 18 (Journal of Death and Dying)
- 1.5 million children are living in a single-parent household because of the death of one parent. (Journal of Hospice & Palliative Nursing. 2008)
- In 2018, 400,000 people under 25 suffered from the death of a loved one (National Mental Health Association).
- In 2008, it was predicted 1 in 20 children aged fifteen and younger will suffer the loss of one or both parents. 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)
- It is estimated that 73,000 children die every year in the United States. Of those children, 83% have surviving siblings. (Home Healthcare Nurse, 2011)
- In a 2001 study of 11- to 16-year-olds, 78% reported that at least one of their close relatives or friends had died. (Harrison and Harrington)
- In 2012 the American Federation of Teachers reported that 7 in 10 teachers currently had at least one student in their class(es) who had lost a parent, guardian, sibling or close friend in the past year.
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. Abandonment fears can impair a child's ability to trust others. A child’s self-esteem can also be affected by lack of parental support.
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. Whole-class selections provide a base for discussions about loss and create classroom community. Five or six of these novels can be employed for classroom book clubs. And independent self-selected novels on the theme of loss allows readers to share and compare their characters’ journeys.
Below, I review and recommend 26 novels (and one memorial for the victims of the Parkland shootings) on the topic of Surviving Loss & Abandonment. At the end of the blog is a list of 70 novels—the reviewed novels and additional novels I have read within the last five years.
Because of their need to face grief and survive loss at early ages, these characters can be added to my previous YA Wednesday guest blogs on strong girls, strong boys, and strong girl-boy partnerships in MG/YA literature:
- “The New Nancy Drew: Strong Girls in YA Literature”
- “50 More Strong Girls in MG/YA Literature—Part A"
Loss of a Parent and Grandparent
Baptist, Kelly J. Isaiah Dunn is My Hero
•Fact: An estimated 1 out of 14 children in the U.S. will experience the death of a parent or sibling before they reach the age of 18; one out of every 20 children aged fifteen and younger will suffer the loss of one or both parents.
•Fact: The number of homeless students enrolled in public school districts and reported by state educational agencies during school year 2017-18 was 1,508,265. This number does not reflect the totality of children and youth experiencing homelessness, as it only includes those students who are enrolled in public school districts or local educational agencies.
•Fact: In many cases, these two facts are related.
“Every day Mrs. Fisher writes a sentence on the board, and we have a few minutes to write something about it. Today she wrote, ‘My world is a good and happy place.” (21)…I keep my workbook closed, too, cuz there’s no way I’m writing any words about being safe and happy.” (23) And a few days later Isaiah reflects, “I wanna tell Mrs. Fisher there’s no way I’m writing about ‘my favorite room in my house’.” (55)
But Isaiah does have his father’s notebook of stories of the superhero Isaiah Dunn which he reads slowly and savors, and he has a love of words, a talent for writing poems, and the goal of making enough money somehow to move his family into a house. He truly wants to be Isaiah Dunn, Superhero. But life is tough, and young adolescent lives are complicated under the best of circumstances. The reader follows Isaiah’s year as he navigates changing relationships with classmates and faces his own grief, attempting to hold his family together, and readers cheer him on as he creates a lasting tribute to his father’s memory.
Connor, Leslie. A Home for Goddesses and Dogs
“You’ll be all right. You come from strong.” (1) In the months after her death, Lydia Bratches-Kemp finds out just how true her mother’s words were.
Thirteen-year-old Lydia has experienced many challenges in her young life. Her father left home when she was six, at the same time her mother became ill with a heart condition. Lydia helped take care of her mother for seven years until she died. But it wasn’t all sadness; her mother homeschooled her so they could spend time together enjoying nature and making art and goddesses, collages from old photographs bought at a flea market.
nd last there is Guffer, the dog whom Bratches, Eileen, and the reluctant Lydia adopt. “I wanted to stop them and ask, Are you sure? Sure you don’t want to wait and see how one rescue goes before you get yourselves into another? Not to liken myself to a dog, exactly. But I had been taken in.” (45) Lydia, by her own words was not a dog person, but as they train the “bad” dog, she becomes more and more attached. “It’d been twelve weeks since Aunt Brat had first driven me up Pinnacle Hill in her boxy car.… We’d [Guffer and I] arrived the same week; We’d both had our lives changed.” (311)
As she deals with secrets—hers and Bratches’; new family, friends and neighbors; pymy goats; a missing father, and her first kiss, she settles in as a member of this close community. “I soaked up the scene. There was something so easy, so right, about watching my friends peel off their boots and jackets in the front hall and something so everyday about Guffer coming to inspect their empty footwear.” (237)
But her love for Guffer also gives her the strength, supported by her new family, to face the adult bully who threatens him. “’Turns out I’m pretty strong,’ I told [Elloroy].” (369)
“We three linked arms and plodded back toward the trail, relieved and still reveling. I held my women up; they held me up. ‘I am flanked by a pair of goddesses, Mom! They won’t let me down! I will never fall down!’” (352)
Erskine, Katheryn. Seeing Red
"The truth will set you free." Or so writes Miss Miller on her board.
When I studied history in school, I learned dates, events, and names. I didn’t learn the motivations, the different perspectives of the truth, and most important, I didn’t learn what changed and what still needs to change. And I didn’t learn to reflect on where I stand and how I can become an agent of change. Teachers told me what to think.
Frederick Stewart Porter (Red), the 12-year-old main character of the novel Seeing Red begins with the narrator’s observation, “Folks don't understand this unless it happens to them: When your daddy dies, everything changes," and he spends the novel navigating those changes. Red knows in many instances what his father would want him to do, but he now experiences the complexities of what is right to do and how to make that happen. Where do his rights/wants end and the rights of others begin? His mother needs to sell their house, shop, and store; Red wants to stay, to preserve his father’s family legacy. He has to decide how far he will go to do so. To enlist the help of the town gang, he first goes along with their initiation. If you burn a cross but don’t mean it to make a statement, does it still make a statement? What if you were just doing what you were told to do? What if your friend who is black happens to be there? What if he is tied up? And beaten?
As Red learns more about the town and his family’s history in forming that town, he thinks back to his father’s words, “Next time, you think for yourself and decide what makes you a man, a good man.” Red does. “It felt like there was nothing but change happening.”
Why do we study history? It’s all happened already and there’s nothing you can do about it, right? This novel reminds me of the Edmund Burke quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.” And that's one reason for our adolescents to read Seeing Red. We can encourage our adolescents to "Discover the past, understand the present, change the future” – Kathy Erskine.
Gemeinhart, Dan. The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise
“You see, I’d walked into that gas station alone. And I’d walked out of it alone. Just like I’d walked in and out of gas stations alone every day for, like, years. And maybe right then and there, holding that kitten, is when I’d just had enough of all that aloneness.” (7)
Coyote Sunrise and her dad Rodeo have been living in a school bus and driving around the country for five years. Five years since Coyote’s two sisters and her mother died in a car crash. Five years since they had spoken of their family, visited their hometown, seen Coyote’s grandmother, or even used their real names.
“Once upon a time, there were three girls. Sisters. Once upon a time, there was a mom.
And, once upon a time there was a box.… And they’d all promised, all three sisters and one mom had promised to come back for the box of memories…no matter what, they’d come back for that box.” (56)
In a weekly phone conversation with her grandmother, Coyote learns that the park where she, her sisters, and mother buried a memory box will be bulldozed for development, and she makes a decision. “I had to get myself, and a bus, and my dad, all the way across the country in less than four days. And I had to do it without my dad noticing.” (62)
Along the way they pick up a cast of characters, diverse people with their own problems: Lester is returning to a woman who wants him to give up his passion for music; Salvador and his mother are fleeing an abusive father/husband; and Val is running away from parents who refuse to accept her as she is—and of course, Ivan, the cat. Traveling with these people and helping them solve their problems, Coyote finds the support and family she needs to give her the strength to do what she needs to do to help her father acknowledge and move on from his loss and to help her fulfill her promise to her sisters and mother.
“I guess sometimes life does seem like too much, especially during the big moments. But usually you can dig inside yourself and find what you need. You can find what you need to grow into those big moments and make ‘em yours.” (299)
Dan Gemeinhart’s novel allows us to join this family, as if we were riding along, and share their sorrows, their failures, and their successes as we witness Coyote’s and her father’s healing.
Gephart, Donna. In Your Shoes
In multi-generational households or neighborhoods, the death of a grandparent can affect a child as much as the loss of a parent. In Your Shoes introduces readers to two adolescents surviving loss—one grieving of the death of a parent, the other of a grandparent.
Grieving her mother’s death, Amy is torn from her best friend and her home in Chicago to live in her uncle’s funeral home in Buckington, Pennsylvania. Her father is learning the funeral trade and is away Monday to Friday, and Amy, even with her optimism, is not making new friends. Life hits a low when she sits down with girls in the middle school cafeteria—and they move to another table. But she meets a new best friend, Tate, a weight lifter with interesting fashion sense, in the school library, and they spend their lunch hours talking stories and eating Jelly Krimpets.
And a bowling shoe is how Miles and Amy connect—literally, both at the beginning and the end of this delightful middle-grade novel. In addition to Randall and Tate, Amy and Miles become each other’s support system through the special bond of grief and loss.
Donna Gephart’s delightful novel about the power of family and friendship features two sports uncommon for a middle-grades book, female weight-lifting and bowling. The novel also conveys the power of story, those we read and those we write.
Maynard, Joyce. The Usual Rules
The Usual Rules is an emotional and insightful novel about the effects of the events of September 11, 2001 on the families and friends of the victims—those left behind.
The reader learns about the close relationship between 13-year-old Wendy and her mother through flashbacks: her parents' divorce; the sporadic visits of her father; her mother's marriage to Josh, her "other dad"; and the birth of her half-brother Louie. And then her mother goes to work at her job at the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001—and does not return. Wendy’s world changes. “Then September happened and the planet she lived on had seemed more like a meteor, spinning and falling” (p. 175).
Wendy leaves Brooklyn and goes to her biological father in California. Among strangers, she re-invents her life. As those she meets help fill the hole in her life, she fills the hole in theirs. Books also help her to heal.
Even though there are quite a few characters in this novel, but they all are well-developed, and I found myself becoming involved in all their lives, not only Wendy, Josh, and Louie and even her father Garrett, but Wendy’s new friends—Carolyn, Alan, Todd, Violet. On some level they all have experienced trauma and loss, and, within these relationships, Wendy is able to heal and return to rebuild her family.
Although I did not want this novel to end and to leave these characters, this well-written novel taught me more about the effects of September 11, loss, and the importance of relationships—and it added a new perspective to my collection of 9/11 novels. [See more novels for Studying & Discussing the Events of 9/11 at http://www.yawednesday.com/blog/15-novels-to-generate-important-conversations-about-the-events-effects-of-nine-eleven-by-lesley-rosessing]
Henkes, Kevin. Sweeping Up the Heart
Amelia’s mother died when she was too young to remember her, so she has not missed her or grieved her death—at least not like her father, the Professor, who has an inability to express his love—and his thoughts. As in the Emily Dickinson poem, Amelia presumes he went through “Sweeping up the Heart and putting Love away.” (50) Luckily, Amelia has been raised by a neighbor who comes to the house each day and loves Amelia as if her own.
Looking out the restaurant window where they imagine lives for the passersby, Amelia notices a woman who looks like her mother and even resembles Amelia herself. Casey, full of imagination, suggests that it is her mother’s spirit, and Amelia takes this to the next step—What if her mother didn’t really die? As she begins to imagine life with her mother, she feels the grief she has been spared. The woman turns out not to be her mother, but is someone who might be able to heal their family. “Although this wasn’t the spring break she’d wanted, she wouldn’t change it.” (179)
I have read Kevin Henkes’ picture books, and I felt the same language and sentence structure in this book. This is a novel about complex emotions and relationships but written simply in lovely language with characters who immediately became part of my heart.
Lowitz, Leza. Up from the Sea
“The bigger the issue, the smaller you write.”--Richard Price
Instead of focusing on the overwhelming statistics generated by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan—nearly 16,000 deaths and 3,000 people missing—the event becomes even more intense and compelling as author Leza Lowitz relates the story of one town and one boy and the resilience of many.
Faced with overwhelming loss and trauma, Kai walks into the ocean but is saved by one of his classmates and convinced to accept the opportunity to go to New York City on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 where he will spend some time with young adults who lost their parents as teens in the 9/11 attacks. At Ground Zero, Fia tells him, “Bravery means being scared and going forward anyway.”
Kai hopes to find his father in NYC but returns to his village to help the young adolescents who lost their families and to rebuild his town. “I want to be/ like that tree/ deep roots/ making it strong/ keeping it/ standing tall.” And it is to his roots Kai returns and stays—“The quake moved the earth/ ten inches/ on its axis./ I guess/I shifted,” too.”
Well-written as a verse novel, Up from the Sea would serve as an effective continuation to a 9/11 study. Readers should already be aware of the events of 9/11 to understand the connection between Kai and Tom but will comprehend the trauma and loss experienced, and resilience that is required, by anyone who faces adversity.
Polisner, Gae. In Sight of Stars
Researchers at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center found that “children who lost a parent due to suicide when they were teenagers or young adults had the highest chance of being hospitalized for a suicide attempt in the first two years after the parental suicide.” This finding highlights the vital importance of providing support to children who are grieving.
Klee looks for support in Sarah, his one new friend, but he may be demanding more than she can give. When she disappoints him, he cuts himself with a knife and ends up in a psychiatric hospital.
The reader lives through Klee’s hospitalization with him; as does he, we wonder what is real, what is imagined. Who can he trust? He already found that he cannot trust his perfect mother, or can he? Who is real, and whom does he fabricate. How much like his favorite artist, Van Gogh, is he?
The author creates a perfect puzzle. I was reminded of the sliding puzzles I played with in childhood. But in sliding puzzles, there always is a piece missing. And Klee finds he does have a piece of the puzzle that is missing and when he finds it, he may be able to build the picture and trust again.
The story is skillfully crafted, as each piece slides into the opening left by the movement of another piece. The characters—Klee, Dr. Alvarez, Sister Agnes Teresa, Martin, Sarah, and even Klee’s mother—are well-developed and are integral parts of the puzzle.
The novel offers hope for those who are surviving trauma and loss: “…the sight of stars is always right there. Right in your line of vision. Even on the cloudiest day.”
Schwartz, Elly. Give & Take
“My insides are filled with a missing that can’t be fixed with words.” (85) Twelve-year-old Maggie’s world seems to be filled with good-byes. It all began on the first worst day of her life—"Forgot Me Day,” the day her Nana forgot who Maggie was, and then the second worst day, the day Nana died. Maggie becomes anxious that she will forget what is special in her life, and she starts collecting mementoes of small moments. She hides boxes under her bed and in her closet, boxes filled with gifts but also milk cartons and straws from lunches, sticks, rocks, anything that will help her remember.
When her secret is discovered, her parents send her to work with Dr. Sparrow, who helps her work toward “a heart big enough to love a lot and a brain healthy enough to let go.” (267)
During all this, Maggie meets a new friend, Mason, who joins their formerly all-girl trapshooting team; helps her little brother Charlie makes friends; finds—and loses—a pet turtle; and has to decide whether to tell a friend’s secret, a secret that could be hurtful to others, risking the loss of that friendship.
Maggie, who struggles with anxiety manifested through hoarding, joins her author-Elly-Swartz-sisters Frankie, who in Smart Cookie is dealing with the loss of her mother, and Molly who struggles with OCD in Finding Perfect in my heart. Their stories will help some young adolescents see their lives reflected and challenges honored and will give others the empathy to understand their peers. For the adult who read these novels, they may provide a flash of insight into those in our classrooms and families.
Loss of a Sibling
Abbott, Tony. Denis Ever After
“So. I made a difference.” (132)
Denis died when he was seven years old. It is now five years later, and he is with his great-grandmother GeeGee in Port Haven where the dead go to forget their lives—backwards, helped by those on Earth who begin forgetting them, until they “fade peacefully.” Usually the dead remain the age they were when they died, but Denis was a twin and since Matt, his brother, imagines them still doing things together, he has aged along with Matt.
“A thousand thousand threads! Patterns woven and repeated, subtly or accidentally, over the years. One thing I’ve figured out, though. Those threads aren’t just lines connecting and reconnecting. They’re more like arteries, pumping life from one thing to another, creating not simply patterns in a fabric, but a living connection from person to person to thing.” (303) Matt’s reflection describes Tony Abbott’s well-crafted complex tale. At first I thought the author would never be able to pull all the diverse events together; however, like arteries in a body, they each served to nourish each other.
Teachers and parents have expressed concern about finding books for our more advanced young adolescent readers; in many YA novels, the themes, events, and language are not appropriate for 9 to 13 year-olds. Denis Ever After is a complex MG novel that is appropriate for young readers; and given that the vocabulary is not particularly advanced, it will also appeal to more emergent readers who are interested in an intricate mystery.
Lyga, Barry. Bang
Stan Lee once said, “If they don’t care about the characters, they can’t care about the story.” And that is true. Characters are first. But if the characters don’t have a story to tell, there is no point in reading or reading forward. And for me, the third, and equally crucial component, is good writing— not the purple prose I see in a lot of novels (an abundance of adjectives, lists of metaphors, cute parenthetical asides) but writing that is not intrusive except when it is so perfect that the reader just has to stop and appreciate the writer—“When the bell rings, I abandon English like it’s the Titanic.”
The plot is an emotional rollercoaster for Sebastian as well as for the reader. I went from shock, to sorrow, to laughter, to frustration, back to laughter, to tears. Given the subject matter, I appreciated the laughter even more than usual; I would describe the novel as presenting a heavy subject but with a light touch, even thought that might be considered a confusing representation. I will say that I couldn’t put it down. This is truly a book that will generate important conversations.
Panteleakos, Nicole. Planet Earth is Blue
Nova, an adolescent with nonverbal autism, is locked in her own world with limited communication. She is able to open up this world with the help of her older sister Bridget, the one person who acknowledges her intelligence and takes care of her when their mother can’t. Nova and Bridget share a love for space and space exploration, and their knowledge is vast. As they are taken away from their mother and moved from foster home to foster home, Bridget looks forward to turning eighteen when she says she will be able to take care of Nova on her own.
The story is told in alternating third-person, the story of Nova’s life with Francine, Billy, and Joanie and school, and first-person which the reader views through Nova’s letters to Bridget—which are, in her real life, illegible. I found it very effective to read about people and events and then re-read them from Nova’s perspective.
Having read that the story incorporated the 1986 Challenger space shuttle launch, I began reading this novel with a feeling of trepidation. I assume that this might be experienced in a different way by readers of diverse ages and background knowledge. The novel presents a moving story, and Nova becomes a character we can all champion as she experiences the disadvantages and finally the benefits of the foster system. Readers will learn a lot about space and the space program, but they will also learn how many times and ways people are judged on assumptions.
In 2018 the CDC determined that approximately 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). According to a study by Boston University, about 30 percent of people diagnosed with ASD "never learn to speak more than a few words." Also, on any given day, there are nearly 428,000 children in foster care in the United States. Today’s children are dealing with multiple challenges, and many are in our classrooms. And this is why novels, such as this debut novel, belong in our school and classroom libraries.
Note: Including this novel in a unit of book clubs about Death or Surviving Loss may serve as a spoiler for readers.
Polisner, Gae. The Summer of Letting Go
Magic—“the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces” (Oxford Dictionary). Many believe that magic, or fate, appears when needed. And this wonderful well-written novel hopefully will appear when needed by an adolescent.
Francesca’s (Frankie) younger brother Simon drowned four years earlier while at the beach with his parents and sister. At the time, eleven year-old Francesca was watching him, and she has felt guilty ever since. Guilt weighs heavy on a child, and Francesca hurts and desires more than a fifteen-year-old can handle.
I am probably stretching, but the novel reminds me of a Cinderella tale (and I have read about 70 cultural variants in my research). In all the Cinderella tales, the motifs stay the same: the mother dies [here Francesca's mother doesn't die, but she is no longer emotionally available to the family]; the father is ineffective; there is an uncaring figure [in this case, again the real mother who is no longer able to show love]; there is an agent of magic who represents the dead mother—in the novel the neighbor who has been taking the place of her mother; the Cinderella figure is faced with, and passes, a test, and [spoiler alert] she ends up with the prince. But most importantly there is magic—or, in this case, is it coincidence? Whichever it is, it works and Francesca is able to reclaim her life. “Not even the ocean can drown our souls”—Gae Polisner.
Children take on guilt all the time—for parents’ divorce, for events happening, and this guilt can stay with them into adulthood. But I would imagine that no guilt is as strong as thinking they have caused the death of a sibling, no matter how young they were at the time.
Reynolds, Jason. Long Way Down
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote "Poetry: The best words in the best order."
This new novel by Jason Reynolds, his first verse novel, proves that maybe more than any verse novel I have read. I have read quite a lot of verse novels and have read many great, lyrical verse with very effective line breaks. But in this novel, every single word, punctuation, and spacing counts. It is a perfect novel for reluctant readers because, even though the words are simple to read, the story generates inference, prediction, making connections re-reading, and employs all the reading strategies necessary to a good reader.
Long Way Down also brings up ideas of loss and retaliation and where, or if, we can break the chain of violence and who makes that decision for us. This novel takes the reader a long way down—in the space of a minute.
Ribay, Randy. Patron Saints of Nothing
“There was a time I thought getting older meant you’d understand more about the world, but it turns out the exact opposite is true.” (296)
Jason Reguero has his life planned out, at least as much as any typical 17-year-old. He will finish his senior year, play video games with his best friend Seth, attend Michigan in the Fall, graduate, and get a job, even though he has no idea what he wants to do and has not found anything that has awakened a passion .
The last time Jay saw Jun was when his family, whose family had moved to the U.S. so the three siblings could be more “American” like their mother, was when they were ten and were like brothers. They had written back and forth until Jay got caught up in his own life and stopped answering Jun’s letters. Jun, questioning the political regime and the church, had moved from his restrictive father’s house and was thought to be living on the streets. Feeling guilty for having abandoned his cousin, Jay uses his Spring Break to fly to the Philippines to investigate Jun’s death, the reason he was really killed, and why no one—other than his sisters, Grace and Angel—mourns his death.
Jay is introduced to Grace’s friend Mia, a student reporter, and together they investigate Jun’s last few years. They find that Jun’s story is not that simple. “I was so close to feeling like I had Jun’s story nailed down. But no. That’s not how stories work, is it?. They are shifting things that re-form with each new telling, transform with each new teller. Less a solid, and more a liquid talking the shape of its container.” (281)
In this coming-of-age novel, Jay finds some answers, and some more questions, challenging his preconceptions. But he also begins discovering his Filipino heritage and his identity as a Filipino-American. He finds a passion which determines his future—at least for now.
“We all have the same intense ability to love running through us. It wasn’t only Jun. But for some reason, so many of us don’t use it like he did. We keep it hidden. We bury it until it becomes an underground river. We barely remember it’s there. Until it’s too far down to tap.” (265)
This is a YA novel for mature readers about identity, family, heritage, and truth. Readers will also learn quite a lot about Filipino history and contemporary politics.
Loss of a Friend or Classmate(s)
Connor, Leslie. The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle
When I began reading The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle, I wondered if I would be as captivated by Mason as I was with another Connor character, Perry T. Cook (All Rise for the Honorable Perry T Cook). Perry and Mason have a lot in common; they are both loyal, resilient, glass-half-full guys who persevere through challenging experiences.
Mason has faced a variety of challenges. He is the largest kid in his grade, sweats uncontrollably, has trouble reading and writing; he lives with his grandmother and uncle in a house he refers to as the “crumbledown”—and Shayleen moves in and takes over his bedroom.
What Mason does have, beside an indomitable spirit, are a compassionate school social worker, a new best friend who is as loyal as Mason, a neighbor’s dog who loves him, and a supportive family. However, what Mason doesn’t realize is that Benny died under mysterious circumstances and some people, including the lieutenant who questions him incessantly and Benny’s two fathers, think Mason may be to blame. As Calvin and Mason create their own hideaway and battle bullies, Mason inadvertently solves the crime, but he still is never one to think badly of anyone, “My heart feels scrambled” (p. 320). The truth as told by Mason Buttle is the truth.
The reader will fall in love with Mason, and even though he may begin the story wearing a T-shirt that proclaims him as “STOOPID,” he ends with the revelation that “Knowing what you love is smart.”
One thing I love about this book is that each of the characters is so well-developed, even the minor characters. With very short chapters and a wealth of diverse characters, this novel would be a good teacher read-aloud or a book club selection for the more-reluctant readers.
Haydu, Corey Ann. The Someday Suitcase
Friend. We use this word casually. Almost everyone we meet and like is identified as a “friend.” We have Facebook Friends we have never met. And it seems young teens have a new BFF every week. But in The Someday Suitcase, readers meet true best friends.
When Clover learns the word “symbiosis” in science, her favorite class [“It refers to a relationship where two organisms or creatures are benefitting from each other and surviving together.…They’re dependent on each other” (7)], she has found a word that perfectly described her friendship with Danny. Sometimes they form two halves of a whole; sometimes they are exactly the same. Clover is practical; Danny is fun. Her favorite subjects are science and math; he is better at English and social studies. When they close their eyes and play statute, they make the exact same shape. Every time. The two fifth-graders have “the world’s closest best friendship.” (2)
When Danny gets sick, really sick, Clover decides “I am going to make my science fair project all about Danny.” (54) She will use science to find out what is wrong with him, something the doctors don’t seem able to do. All they know is that when he is with Clover, he feels better. “Maybe this is who I’m meant to be—a person who makes other people feel better.” (150)
Living in Florida, the two friends have always wanted to see snow; Clover’s father, a truck driver, brings her snow globes from each trip. When Danny’s mysterious illness worsens, they buy a someday suitcase. “It’s for when we go to the snow.” (114)
With Danny missing so much school, Clover, although feeling guilty, begins to make friends of her own, and the mother of one of her new friends explains that with science, there is also “room for faith and religion.” (174). When Clover and Danny set their sights on a clinic in Vermont where they think Danny can be cured (and where they can finally see snow), they experience the magic of their friendship: “Until it’s proven false, anything is possible. Even magic.” (209)
This is a sweet, heartbreaking story about friendship, “a magical friendship…. Love with a twist.” (263)
Jackson, Tiffany D. Monday’s Not Coming
‘Without Monday by my side, I was jumping alone in shark-infested waters…” (10) Claudia sees Monday as her best friend, her sister, her soul-mate. But Monday isn’t there when Claudia returns from her summer visit to Georgia; she’s not there the first day of school, the first week, the first month, and no one else seems to be looking for her but Claudia. She gets evasive, conflicting answers from Monday’s mother, her sister April, and the adults at her school, and the police. Even her parents vacillate between helping her and forbidding her from visiting the dangerous complex where Monday lives.
Well-crafted, the timeline fluctuates so that the reader learns the story in bits and pieces, appreciating this format at the end. Part mystery, part the story of responsibility for others, this is a story of constant friendship and persistent loyalty, as well as a story about grief.*
*Note: Including this novel in a unit of book clubs about Death or Surviving Loss may serve as a spoiler for readers.
Lerner, Sarah, ed. Parkland Speaks
On the first anniversary of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I read the writings of the survivors of that unspeakable event. In this “yearbook,” students and teachers share their stories of grief, terror, anger, and hope, and honor those who died through narratives, letters, speeches, free verse and rhyming poetry, and art. As the editor, MSD English and journalism teacher Sarah Lerner, writes, “Watching my students find their voices after someone tried to silence them was impressive…. It was awe-inspiring. It was brave…. They turned their grief into words, into pictures, into something that helped them begin the healing process.”
It doesn’t pause
Or give you a break. It keeps hitting you
With debilitating blows, one after the other,
As those missing responses remain empty,
And your messages remain unread.” –C. Chalita
“We entered a war zone.…I came out of that building a different person than the one who left for school that day.” –J. DeArce
“Somehow, through the darkness, we found another shade of love, too
something that outweighed the hate and swept the grays away.
A love so strong it transcended colors, something so empowering and true it couldn’t be traced to one hue.” – H. Korr
“I just don’t want to let go of all the people I love,
I want to continuously tell them “I love you” until
My voice is raw and my throat is sore” – S. Bonnin
“I invite you [Dear Mr. President] to learn, to hear the story from inside,
Cause if not now, when will be the right time to discuss?” –A. Sheehy
A look into the minds and hearts of those who experienced an event no one, especially adolescents, should ever expect to encounter as they share with readers in similar and disparate circumstances across the globe.
Polisner, Gae and Baskin, Nora Raleigh. Seven Clues to Home
“But something else is pulling at me, knocking around in my insides, starting out like a whisper, like a song I sang all the time, but now I forget the words.
‘Do you remember those times I was happy?’
‘I do.’” (146)
But “there are some moments that change everything…” (157)
When Lukas dies on Joy’s twelfth birthday, she lives through a year of pain and grief. On her thirteenth birthday, she decides to follow the clues that, as was their tradition, Lukas had left for her birthday the previous year.
This captivating novel which grabbed my heart and squeezed it, as I wanted to keep reading but couldn’t face finishing and leaving these lovable characters, is written in alternating chapters narrated by Joy and Lukas.
Readers follow Lukas though the day before Joy’s 12th birthday as he hides the clues leading to her present and wrestles with giving her the heart necklace that will declare his new feelings, fearful that she will not feel the same. Readers shadow Joy on her 13th birthday as she escapes the house and follows the clues around town. “I don’t think I’ve been on my own, unaccounted for, this long in my whole life. But it feels good. Kind of like being let out after being hidden away—even if I did the hiding myself—like the sky clearing, and the air smells so fresh.” (133)
We experience the depth of their friendship through memories and their commitment to the birthday clues. We also meet the family and townspeople who care about them.
There are moments that change everything and books that change everything. Seven Clues will be that book for many readers, especially those experiencing loss.
Atkinson, Mary. Tillie Heart and Soul
I grew up in a small town where everyone I knew had a “typical” family—mom, dad, siblings, maybe a pet and a station wagon, or at least I assumed they did. When I began teaching, I found that very few of my students were part of a ”typical” family, that families came in all varieties, but many of those kids longed for that family from The Donna Reed Show or The Brady Bunch
This is a little novel for those young adolescents who feel different (and who doesn’t at that age?) or who have lost someone through divorce, death, addiction, and are trying to navigate the shifting social relationships of the middle grades and that which we call our families.
Hackl, Jo Watson. Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, 9.8 million Americans aged 18 or older, or 4.2% of the adult population, are living with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depressive disorder. Two-thirds of females and one-half of men afflicted with serious mental illnesses are likely to be parents.
“Turns out, it’s easier than you might think to sneak out of town smuggling a live cricket, three pocketsful of jerky, and two bags of half-paid-for merchandise from Thelma’s Cash ‘n’ Carry grocery store. The hard part was getting up the guts to go.” (1)
When Aunt Belinda abandons her in Thelma’s Cash ‘n’ Carry, Cricket takes her pet cricket, spends all her money on supplies and food, writing an IOU for what she can’t afford, and takes off for Woods Time, as her father would say. Living in a tree house and following her father’s guidelines for survival, she survives raccoons stealing most of her food and supplies and an ice storm, and explores the ghost town, torn down and abandoned by a lumber company, until clues—and a snake bite—lead her to Miss V, the one person whose house still exists, a woman who helps Cricket discover that not only her mother, but she, “contains multitudes.” “I thought about what Miss V had said about Mama being more than what the neighbors thought…. And it wasn’t who I was, either. I was my own, whole person.…Maybe it was time to start taking chances on me.” (203)
Ariana Overland is an adolescent a reader wants to champion. I found myself cheering her on throughout the book. She joins the ranks of literary strong girls as the resourceful and resilient hero of an adventure story about family and identity written by a new author with an incredible voice.
Hunt, Lynda Mullaly. Shouting at the Rain
Just like Ally (Fish in a Tree) and Carley (One for the Murphys), Lynda Mullaly Hunt has created a third character who will live in readers’ hearts—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)
The summer before seventh grade is a rollercoaster for Delsie. Her summer best friend, Brandy, is changing; she worries about getting messy and befriends the new girl Tressa, a classic Mean Girl.
Luckily, Ronan moves in with his father; 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. Delsie realizes that while she 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.”), 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 adult neighbor 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 adolescents reading this book will identify with some parts of Delsie’s and Ronan’s lives and possibly those who don’t will see themselves reflected in Brandy or Tressa and gain empathy and understanding.
Jacobson, Jennifer Richard. Small as an Elephant
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, 9.8 million Americans aged 18 or older, or 4.2% of the adult population, are living with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depressive disorder. Other mental illnesses that may affect parenting and child welfare include obsessive-compulsive, paranoid, psychotic, panic, and posttraumatic stress disorders. Because two-thirds of females and one-half of men afflicted with serious mental illnesses are likely to be parents, "There's a significant number of individuals with some level of emotional distress who are raising children," says Joanne Nicholson, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth Psychiatric Research Center in The Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth University.
On a camping trip in Maine, she leaves Jack and disappears. It is up to this 11-year-old boy to find his way back to Massachusetts and, hopefully, his mother. Obsessed with elephants, Jack steals a toy elephant which becomes his good luck charm and battles weather, a broken finger, hunger, fatigue, and evading the police once he is listed as missing, before he learns to trust a new friend who takes him to Lydia, the elephant, and to his grandmother who will help make his life safe and filled with love. Part adventure, part confronting challenges and accepting help, this novel and its resilient character will appeal to many and raise empathy for what too many children face.
The three Jacobson novels I have read and reviewed in the past year should be read by not only adolescents but by their teachers and parents because they focus on issues that too many of our children face: Paper Things on homelessness; The Dollar Kids on loss and poverty; and Small as an Elephant on children affected by a parent’s mental illness and by child abandonment.
Magoon, Kekla. The Season of Styx Malone
I continually watch for good novel openings, to show readers how authors can grab attention.
“Styx Malone didn’t believe in miracles, but he was one. Until he came along, there was nothing very special about life in Sutton, Indiana.” (1) The first page just keeps getting better until the last line seals the deal—“It all started the moment I broke the cardinal rule of the Franklin household: Leave well enough alone.” (1)
Then the brothers meet a mysterious sixteen-year-old name Styx Malone, Yes, as in Greek mythology, where the River Styx separated the world of the living from the world of the dead. Malone may not be their transport from the dead to the living but it sure seems so. Styx is free from parental restraints and always has a plan that becomes bigger and better. “The moment felt like Saturday, like summer heat, like adventure…. It felt like the soft swish of corn tassels and being one step closer to an impossible dream… One step closer to our happy ending.’” (116)
As the boys become more and more involved with Styx, providing the friendship it appears he is missing in his life, they learn that he is a foster child who has moved from home to home, family to family, and his life may not be as glamorous as it seems. “’Only person you can ever count on is yourself.’…There were lots of people I could count on…. But I got what Styx was saying: Freedom came with a price.” (154)
Many things changed the season Styx Malone “shook [their] world.” That summer did make a difference—to Styx himself and to expanding the world of the Franklins.
There were many interesting, delightful characters, including Cory Cromier, the eleven-year-old bully who loves babies and becomes a Franklin brothers’ ally, and Pixie, Styx’s magical ten-year-old foster sister. This book, with its short chapters, each ending with seductive lines, and prospective discussions of morality, ethics, responsibility, friendship, and family, would make a good read aloud for grades 5-9.
Perkins, Mitali. Forward Me Back to You
When 16-year-old Katina is assaulted in the stairwell by the popular star basketball player, her jujitsu skills let her defend herself. But when she reports the attack, it is she who is made so uncomfortable she has to leave school. Her confidence shattered, she wonders if she will ever be able to trust men again.
Robin was born in Kolkata, abandoned by his mother, and adopted by loving, wealthy, supportive American parents at age 3, but he has never stopped thinking about his first mother and his life seems to have no direction.
Told through very short chapters that alternate between Kat and Robin and simply written, Mitali Perkins’ novel would be valuable read that is accessible to, and appropriate for, all adolescent readers.
Reading in Book Clubs
In small groups readers more readily participate in discussions, especially when discussion techniques are taught as a book club skill. Book club participants of all ages have reflected that some advantages of book clubs are that are supportive and allow for deeper discussion with more participation and the sharing of multiple perspectives.
A unit can be designed to examine, through novels, the effect of a death from different circumstances on adolescents who had divergent relationships with the deceased. The unit could also analyze and compare differing genres in which novels about death are written—i.e., prose, verse, and graphic novels as well as novels written from differing points of view. Besides all the obvious advantages of book clubs, these books on different subtopics and reading levels and types of writing allow for more reader choice.
As an alternative, educators could choose one subtopic (Loss of a Parent, Loss of a Sibling, Loss of a Friend), for each of their classes, and readers would choose from 5-6 books in that category to form book clubs.
The class could be divided into five or six book clubs after students review 5-6 choices and each choose a book at their comfort reading level and in which they are interested. Each choice will generate conversations on disparate topics, focusing on assorted literary elements, and at a variety of cognitive levels, inducing students to read critically and converse meaningfully. At times individual members of book clubs could meet with members of other book clubs in inter-club meetings to compare and contrast their novels, how the authors wrote about death, and how their characters handled loss and grief.
Planning, organizing, facilitating, and assessing book clubs, as well as teaching readers to write their reflections while reading to increase comprehension; how to plan and hold meaningful, respectful discussions; and ways to present their novels after reading to the class as text synthesis are outlined—with student examples—in Talking Texts: A Teachers’ Guide to Book Clubs Across the Curriculum.
Lesley is the author of
- Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically & Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core
- Comma Quest: The Rules They Followed. The Sentences They Saved
- No More “Us” & “Them: Classroom Lessons and Activities to Promote Peer Respect
- The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension
- Talking Texts: A Teachers’ Guide to Book Clubs across the Curriculum
- and has contributed chapters to
- Young Adult Literature in a Digital World: Textual Engagement though Visual Literacy
- Queer Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the English Language Arts Curriculum
- Story Frames, an upcoming book on teaching writing
75 MG/YA Stories of Surviving Loss & Abandonment
Abbott, Tony. Junk Boy
Acevedo, Elizabeth. Clap When You Land
Alexander, Kwame. The Crossover
Alexander, Kwame. Rebound
Baptist, Kelly J. Isaiah Dunn is My Hero *
Bryant, Jen. Pieces of Georgia
Buxbaum, Julie. Hope and Other Punch Lines
Connor, Leslie. A Home for Goddesses and Dogs *
Erskine, Katheryn. Seeing Red *
Erskine, Kathryn. Quaking
Gemeinhart, Dan. The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise *
Gephart, Donna. In Your Shoes *
Henkes, Kevin. Sweeping Up the Heart *
LaCour, Nina. We Are Okay.
Lowitz, Leza. Up from the Sea *
Lyga, Barry. The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl
Maynard, Joyce. The Usual Rules *
Padian, Maria. How to Build a Heart
Polisner, Gae. In Sight of Stars *
Quick, Matthew. Boy 21
Reynolds, Jason. The Boy in the Black Suit
Roe, Robin. A List of Cages
Sloan, Holly. Counting by 7’s
Schwartz, Elly. Give & Take *
Thomas, Angie. On the Come Up
Woodson, Jacqueline. Locomotion
Woodson, Jacqueline. Miracle’s Boys
Death of Sibling(s):
Abbott, Tony. Denis Ever After *
Appelt, Kathi, Maybe a Fox
Dooley, Sarah. Free Verse
Erskine, Katheryn. Mockingbird
Knowles, Jo. See You at Harry’s
Koertge, Ron. Coaltown Jesus
Leaver, Trisha. The Secrets We Keep
Lyga, Barry. Bang *
Mills, Wendy. All We Have Left
Moore, David Barclay. The Stars Beneath Our Feet
Niven, Jennifer. All the Bright Places
Panteleakos, Nicole. Planet Earth is Blue *
Polisner, Gae. The Summer of Letting Go *
Reynolds, Jason. Long Way Down *
Ribay, Randy. Patron Saints of Nothing (cousin) *
Sanchez, Erika L. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Death of Friend(s) and Classmates:
Anderson, Laurie Halse. Wintergirls
Benjamin, Ali. The Thing about Jellyfish
Connor, Leslie. The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle *
Fields, Terri. After the Death of Anna Gonzales
Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars
Haydu, Corey Ann. The Someday Suitcase *
Jackson, Tiffany D. Monday’s Not Coming *
Jacobson, Jennifer Richard. The Dollar Kids
Lerner, Sarah, ed. Parkland Speaks *
Magoon, Kekla. How It All Went Down
Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia
Polisner, Gae and Baskin, Nora Raleigh. Seven Clues to Home *
Silvera. Adam. They Both Die at the End
Thomas, Angie. The Hate U Give
Woodson, Jacqueline. Behind You
Atkinson, Mary. Tillie Heart and Soul *
Benway, Robin. Far from the Tree
Burg, Ann E. All the Broken Pieces
Bryant, Jen. Kaleidoscope Eyes
Creech, Sharon. Walk Two Moons
Crossan, Sarah. The Weight of Water
Crossan, Sarah. Apple and Rain
Hackl, Jo Watson. Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe *
Hunt, Lynda Mullaly. One for the Murphys
Hunt, Lynda Mullaly. Shouting at the Rain *
Jacobson, Jennifer Richard. Small as an Elephant *
LaMarche, Una – Don’t Fail Me Now
Lenz, Niki. Bernice Buttman: Model Citizen
Magoon, Kekla. The Season of Styx Malone *
Perkins, Mitali. Forward Me Back to You *
Sarno, Melissa. A Swirl of Ocean
Zarr, Sara. Gem & Dixie
* books reviewed in this blog