Tag Archives: grief

Anger. Grief. Bitterness. Oh, and some fun.

optimists“This group…it’s like a twisted version of The Breakfast Club.

Hmmm.  I was just thinking the exact same thing.  And the author has now taken care of my whole intro to the book.  Whew!  That was hard work.

Petula’s art therapy group is an emotionally bruised group of kids which she would rather not be a part of.  If only she hadn’t thrown that cup at the other counselor…  They snipe at each other and make rude remarks, yet are somehow  exactly the kind of people she needs.  It’s only with Jacob’s arrival that they really begin to pull together and trust each other, however.

Adults are often making life miserable for Petula, but even the principal, her parents, and the goofy and well-meaning art therapist have their moments.  I loved the way the author took these wounded and struggling people and made them real, bringing their joys and sorrows into the light.  There is sadness galore, but there is also hope.   And it is funny, at least in the way that people joke after death or screwing up their lives or alienating their families.  Oh, and there are Canadians in it.  That’s a bonus, too.

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

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Clayton, Cool Papa, and Wah-Wah Nita

I cclayton-birdan relate to Clayton Bird.  I may be a middle-aged white woman living in Iowa, but I understand his pain.  I might not have grown up with a blues-playing grandpa–mine was known to ride a banana seat bike now and then, but wouldn’t have known what to do with a guitar—but I know how important people other than parents can be when you’re growing up.  I remember being angry about injustice when I was a kid, or at least what I saw as injustice in my own life.  And I know grief, really crushing grief that hides out in unexpected places and hits you at all the wrong times.

Clayton is the kind of character everyone can relate to on some level, although he might not look like many of the kids I knew growing up.  That’s what’s so wonderful about Rita Williams-Garcia’s work.  Her characters are simultaneously universal and completely unique.  The small details make you think of your Uncle Rich or that kid you went to school with who had a goofy nickname or your best friend’s mom or whoever.   His story, like many of Williams-Garcia’s, celebrates an ordinary life with extraordinary moments—moments which reveal quite a bit about our society as a whole and how kids navigate it. Her characters’ experiences reach out to you, whoever you are, wherever you live.  It’s a gift we are so, so lucky to be able to witness and enjoy.

And if all that weren’t enough, Ms. Williams-Garcia mentions Kathi Appelt in her note at the end of the book.  We all know (or maybe we don’t) just how crazy I am about Kathi Appelt.  I’ve practically thrown her books at the 5th graders I visit if I find out they have somehow managed to miss them.  And  I don’t stop at once a year – she comes up repeatedly.  Actually, I’ve kind of done the same with Rita Williams-Garcia’s books (One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven, Gone Crazy in Alabama) because they are a different and wonderful brand of fabulous.   Clearly, I’m just going to get worse.  Prepare.  Beware.

Clayton Bird Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

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When your whole world is complicated

goldfish boyOne line on page 79 is what did it for me.  Matthew is watching the neighbor’s grandchildren playing outside.  Casey, the little girl, has drowned her doll in a wading pool.

“She is one scary kid,” I said to the Wallpaper Lion.

Matty talks to a scrap of wallpaper, but he’s judging Casey?   Excellent.

To Matty, world outside is maddening.  His Wallpaper Lion and obsessive hand-washing make sense.  Others in the neighborhood also have their quirks – Old Nina leaves a light on all the time, Melody saves notes to the dead and so on.  It turns out, Matty understands more about what’s really going on than most of the neighbors do.

There are more moments like this throughout the book, moments when Matty calls out the crazy in other people while clinging to his own as if his beliefs are rational and the others aren’t.  It’s done so well that you find you’ve entered into Matty’s world completely, and it does make sense.  Maybe he’s on to something?

Take a look.

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

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Re-Counting by 7s

countingSometimes books just hit us at the perfect moment.   There’s something in our past, our present, or what we think might be our future, something that a book or a character or even just a phrase captures precisely.  That, my friends, is Willow Chance and Counting by 7s in a nutshell.  Willow is obsessive, awkward, analytical and an outsider.  But somehow, she’s all of the things we know ourselves to be, too.  She’s trying to find her way.

I don’t do much re-reading – there are always too many new books to get to– except for my annual trips to Hogwarts in French and German, which is my way of reminding my brain of its many and varied pathways.  But my book club decided to read Counting by 7s, and after trying to listen to it in the car unsuccessfully (some books work that way for me and other just don’t), I scrounged up my son’s copy. (He rereads it regularly.)

Holly Goldberg Sloan’s writing is just incredible–direct, powerful, illuminating, wonderful.  Switches of perspective happen seamlessly, although the characters don’t seem to share very much.  Willow is an oddball genius, as labeled by Dell Duke, her school counselor who lies about having a cat and can’t throw things away.  Her new friends, Mai, Quang-ha and Pattie probably have a few issues, too.  Mai would like to have bunk beds; Quang-ha would like to be left alone; Pattie thinks about nail polish a lot, maybe too much to realize what her life is really about.  Then there’s Jairo, a cab driver who becomes convinced Willow is his personal angel.

In the end, all of these oddballs form a family. It’s a happy ending, but it doesn’t feel sappy or cloying.  And passing through their lives reminded me of so many painful and happy days of my own – experiencing soul-crushing grief, seeing a garden grow, and finding a new friend who is completely different but perfect for me.  It’s a trip you should take, too, whether you’ve been there before or not.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

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Maybe a fox, maybe a path to peace

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We don’t always acknowledge it, but many of us spend part of our lives walking through the world with a veil of sadness clinging to us.  Some people are able to push it back and stride through the world looking one way but retreat back into it on their own.  Others walk with the veil surrounding them, sometimes protecting them from the harsh world outside, sometimes creating a wall too thick to penetrate.  Sadness, grief, loss – feeling them intensely can both drag us down and help us heal.

Jules, Sylvie, Elk, Sam and Dad all carry it with them at different times and in different ways, and even the animals in the forest nearby feel it; Senna the fox and the catamount are kennens, animals with special spirits somehow connected to humans.

Maybe a Fox is an emotional book – filled with grief, beauty, peace, loss – and it’s powerful, but that really comes as no surprise, having been written by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee.  It might not be a book for kids who want a lot of action and laughs, although there is a little of both in the book.  It might connect with those kids in a unexpected way, however.  It’s deeper, so deep that it’s beyond what you might usually touch in your daily life.  It’s also a beautiful piece about human connection to nature, connection to each other, even the connection to loss.  It might be a fox or it might be a path to something else.

Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee

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The thing about The Thing About Jellyfish

jellyfish

“I remember what Dr. Legs had said the very first time I met her—that everybody grieves in different ways, that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Well, I thought. When she hears about this, she may just change her mind.”

Suzanne, also known as Suz, Zu, Medusa, and Belle, is grieving. Her friend from childhood, whom she’s lost to adolescence, has died in an accident. Adults talk about how sometimes things “just happen”, but Zu knows there must be more to it, that there’s no way Franny would have “just” died. In her awkward way, Zu had been trying to fix her relationship with Franny the last time they’d seen each other, but in retrospect, it she regrets what happened. Facing the truth of her life and her choices is overwhelming to Zu in a way that the people around her can’t seem to comprehend or help her with. Her interest in science develops into an obsession, but it’s not clear for some time whether it will lead her through her grief or drown her.

The Thing About Jellyfish is full of powerfully awkward and painful moments. Whether it’s the middle school lunchroom, Chinese dinners with her divorced dad, reliving her memories of Franny, or her passion for jellyfish, Zu is feeling so much and so strongly. And while many of the feelings are sad or uncomfortable, it’s a beautiful story, full of moments that make you laugh or cry or wince. Losing someone so close at such a young age is often wrapped in regret over mistakes made or opportunities missed, and Zu captures all of this with a remarkable honesty. Grief is hard to capture authentically in novels for the young, but Ali Benjamin has done it and done it well here, and I’ll be gushing about The Thing About Jellyfish for a long time.

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More death, despair, kindness and a key-like crank, too

cropped-woundabout-coverSome time ago, I wrote about coming across a slew of books with young characters whose parents were missing, dead, dying and so on. I picked up Woundabout – kind of gray in tone – with something of a sigh. Another one.

The grief and sadness is a little clingy, well done but lingering – this might be more of a November book for me – but there are also odd, keyhole-like spaces and a mysterious, valuable key-like crank, and I’m kind of a sucker for odd mechanical contraptions, so I kept on. The title might just have some clues, too. The people who live in this small, gloomy town are wounded in some way and do not want any kind of change. For things to get better (change), they might just have wind something.

Connor and Cordelia make a few friends and solve a few mysteries. It’s a very fast read, and as the grief falls away and new people come into their lives, the story speeds along to a happy conclusion. Not happy for everyone, maybe, but happy.

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