All stories involve stress, loss and change for at least a few characters. If they don’t, what’s the point? Lately, however, I’ve gotten the feeling that my to-be-read stack is conspiring to throw certain kinds of books in front of me, mostly books about kids facing bigger stresses, losses, and changes –those who’ve lost their parents, live with someone who’s really struggling, or have to move to a new town or new culture. Sometimes all three.
It started with Augusta Scattergood’s The Way to Stay in Destiny. After his parents have died and his grandparents can no longer take care of him, Theo is forced to move with his somewhat angry uncle to Destiny, Florida. Theo’s transition is not an easy one, although making a friend, meeting some of the town’s characters and finding a way to play music –which his uncle has forbidden – makes a big difference. Theo’s world is full of the small happenings of everyday life that eventually blend together into something bigger. The action advances without being in a hurry, so Theo’s realizations about himself fit perfectly into the mood and movement of the book.
I was taken in by the cover of Waiting for Unicorns by Beth Hautala. (Mason jar… narwhal… hmmm, what’s that all about?) The inside flap made it seem like a possible tearjerker, which I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for, but the idea of flying up to the Arctic for the summer intrigued me, and the story of the unicorn of the sea interested me, so I read on. It’s a quiet book–full of Talia’s wishes for things to work out or be different, slow-moving because her grief over losing her mom is so present, and a little heavy with the worry about things that might go wrong. Still, I liked the characters. I wanted to find out what happened to them. It never seemed like it was trying too hard, and Talia’s jar of wishes, with its rules and complications, is something I could see a real person creating.
Immediately after finishing Waiting for Unicorns, I started Kate Messner’s new book, All the Answers, not expecting what I got there, either. The cover and description seemed to suggest a lighter, wackier book. A magic pencil creates all kinds of silly and crazy situations, but they didn’t really seem as funny to me as maybe they were supposed to. (The fact that my family describes me as “worst-case-scenario Mom” might give you some idea of why.) Ava is a little on the anxious side and overly self-aware, and the pencil just brings out a whole lot of stress in her. She worries – oh, how she worries about things! Will her parents divorce because they don’t agree on things? Will her mother make up with her grandfather? Will her best friend forgive her for something she didn’t do? Everything does work out, as life often does, but it’s kind of a hard-bouncy ride getting there. I liked the book, although I wasn’t sure I was going to at many points. Messner writes with such skill about Ava and her anxieties that it was only when I finished it that I could let go of the anxious feeling myself!
Looking for other books about loss and change? Try one of these:
Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms – Katherine Rundell… Will’s perfect life with her father on a farm in Zimbabwe ends after her father dies, and her guardians send her to England to school.
I Lived on Butterfly Hill – Marjorie Agosin… Set in Chile during a time when people are “disappeared,” Celeste’s parents are sent into hiding and she goes to America to be safe. She tries to adjust to the culture but is haunted by what’s happened at home, eventually returning to try to find her parents and regain her life.
The Language Inside – Holly Thompson… Emma was raised in Japan, but returns to the U.S. after her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer. She doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere. This moving teen novel in verse shows Emma’s struggle to find her own place in her changing world.
And don’t forget these classics, tearjerkers one and all:
Where the Red Fern Grows – Wilson Rawls – Billy and his two redbone hounds learn about hunting, teamwork and life.
Sounder – William Armstrong – A poor African-American boy and his family suffer after the father is caught stealing. Their loyal dog, Sounder, is injured but manages to return. A powerful story of resilience.
Old Yeller – Fred Gipson – A moving story of a boy and his dog in Texas hill country.
The Yearling – Marjorie Rawlings – The Pulitzer Prize-winning story of Jody, Pa, Ma and the deer Jody adopts.