Speechless by Adam P. Schmitt

Speechless

Adam P. Schmitt, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Nov. 6, 2018

Pages: 304

Suitable for Ages: 12 and up

Themes: Death, Grief, Mental Illness, Family Relationships, Speech, Humor

Synopsis:

How do you give a eulogy when you can’t think of one good thing to say? A poignant, funny, and candid look at grief, family secrets, difficult people, and learning to look behind the facade.

As if it weren’t uncomfortable enough being stuffed into last year’s dress pants at his cousin’s wake, thirteen-year-old Jimmy has just learned from his mother that he has to say a few words at the funeral the next day. Why him? What could he possibly say about his cousin, who ruined everything they did? He can’t recall one birthday party, family gathering, or school event with Patrick that didn’t result in injury or destruction.

As Jimmy attempts to navigate the odd social norms of the wake, he draws on humor, heartfelt concern, and a good deal of angst while racking his brain and his memory for a decent and meaningful memory to share. But it’s not until faced with a microphone that the realization finally hits him: it’s not the words that are spoken that matter the most, but those that are truly heard.

What I like about this book:

Adam Schmitt’s complex story deals with bullying, death, grief, suicide and dysfunctional family relationships. These heavy topics are all introduced through the lighthearted perspective of a 13-year-old Jimmy, who narrates the story. Jimmy is one of the best characters I’ve read in a while.  He has a strong voice. Even though he can’t remember one positive memory of his cousin, he delivers a eulogy at the end that readers won’t forget.

It is important to see mental illness addressed in stories. I remember knowing kids like Patrick when I was in school, so this story intrigued me from the start. I appreciate how carefully Schmitt develops his characters. He even makes me care about Patrick by the end of the story.

Patrick is off-the-charts disturbed. He has no friends except his cousin, Jimmy — and that is pushing the envelope. Jimmy can’t recall a single positive memory of his cousin. When he got a toy, Patrick broke it. If he got ice cream, Patrick would find a way to make him drop his cone.  At a Fourth of July party, Patrick injures Jimmy with firecrackers. Patrick’s family doesn’t know what to do about Patrick’s behavior, and their reactions are unpredictable.

Each chapter begins with a small truth that Jimmy learns about funerals: people who show up, people who enjoy the drama of attending a wake, family members who show their true colors, things you may hear that you don’t expect, everyone has a story, and listen more than you speak. Jimmy’s observations offer a lot of comic relief. And he constantly worries that the button on his tight-fitting pants, which is too loose, will finally pop at the wrong moment.

The author took some risks with this story, but the ending makes it worth the read. Even though I would  like to know why Patrick did what he did, it lends itself to some good discussions with middle grade readers. Speechless is an intriguing story.

Adam P. Schmitt has been a middle-school educator for more than fifteen years. Speechless is his debut middle-grade novel. “This story came to me in a single moment while at the funeral of a former student…The characters here don’t represent any one person, but several people in my life who had stories to tell and didn’t know how to find someone to listen.” Schmitt lives in Oswego, Illinois, with his wife and two sons. Visit Schmitt’s website.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by the publisher.

A Stone for Sascha by Aaron Becker

A Stone for Sascha

Aaron Becker, Author & Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Fiction, May 8, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 5-9

Themes: Pet, Death, Grief, Journey, Healing, Wordless picture book

Synopsis:

This year’s summer vacation will be very different for a young girl and her family without Sascha, the beloved family dog, along for the ride. After laying her dog to rest in the family’s backyard and showering the grave with flowers, the family goes on a camping trip. A wistful walk along the beach to gather cool polished stones becomes a brilliant turning point in the girl’s grief.  A major shift occurs in the story. There, at the edge of a vast ocean beneath an infinite sky, the girl uncovers, alongside the reader, a profound and joyous truth.

Why I love this book:

Aaron Becker’s breathtaking wordless picture book takes readers on an epic journey across the cosmos. This is a quiet and contemplative picture book. Readers will want to pour over all of the details in the dreamy illustrations of the girl’s extraordinary journey of healing that reaches beyond time and civilizations — because of one polished stone. A meteor strikes the earth, leaving a path of debris that is mined by ancient human workers. The golden stone is carved into a statue. During times of war the stone topples. It is carried away to serve other purposes and eventually ends up in the ocean where it is polished into a smooth stone by the churning waves and discovered by the girl. This is a book Becker hopes readers “will find comfort in stories that are older than our own and  inspire the reader to discover their own path.” Verdict: This book is a treasure.

Aaron Becker is the author of the award-winning Journey, Quest, and Return wordless picture book trilogy. A Stone for Sascha is a stand-alone book. Becker took care of a hermit crab for his pet merit badge in the Boy Scouts. When it died, he wasn’t too sad about it. But when lost Lily, his first cat, it was a different story altogether. Learning that love includes loss is a profound lesson that he’s learned from his animal companions over the years.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

Missing Mommy by Rebecca Cobb

MissingMommy9780805095074_p0_v1_s260x420Missing Mommy

Rebecca Cobb, Author and Illustrator

Henry Holt and Company, Fiction, April 2013

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Theme:  Death, Grief, Mother, Family Support

Opening“Some time ago we said good-bye to Mommy. I am not sure where she has gone. I have tried looking for her.”

Synopsis:  A young boy’s mother dies. He doesn’t understand what has happened or where she has gone. He searches for her and finds some of her clothing hanging in the closet. He feels scared and angry because he doesn’t think she is coming back. He worries that she left because he was naughty.  Daddy finds a way to help the boy and his sister keep their mother’s memory alive.

Why I like this book:  I really like that this story because  it is told from the boy’s viewpoint with a lot of simplicity and honesty. It is a touching and loving debut picture book written and illustrated by Rebecca Cobb. I am always searching for good grief books for children.  Missing Mommy deals with the pain, fear, and anger of the losing a parent, but is balanced with the loving support from family.  The artwork is childlike, as Cobb uses watercolors and crayons to create childlike simplicity for her young readers.

Resources: Missing Mommy will help spark a discussion about death and grief between children and parents.  It’s never too early to talk about death with children because they may first experience the death of a pet or grandparent. For further information visit Rebecca Cobb at her website.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book.  To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.

Honoring Military Families: The Real Heroes

I want to spend some time this week before Memorial Day Weekend, focusing on military families who have lost a loved one to war.  Yes, they are the parents, spouses, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends who have been left to face a future filled with grief, despair, disbelief, anger and in some cases feelings of shame.  These families are the real heroes.  Each post will be a little different, because I want to include resources and information about a number of support organizations that are available to help families begin to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives. 

I especially wanted to begin  my posts sharing  a very compelling book, Heart of a Hawk, about one family’s sacrifice and journey toward healing,  by Deborah H. Tainsh.   Deborah and David Tainsh’s son, U.S. Army Sergeant Patrick Tanish, died while serving the military in Iraq on Feb. 11, 2004.   Sgt. Tainsh was at the end of his year-long tour making plans to return home to his family and girlfriend, when he was on patrol near the airport in Baghdad that fateful night.  A roadside bomb exploded near the convoy of Humvees.  He remained behind and defended his unit so they could reach safety, while he had taken a fatal bullet.  He received a Silver Star for his heroic efforts.

Early in her book, Deborah comments that many stories are written about the lives of soldiers and the personal battles they fight.  But, not a lot is written about the families at home.  Deborah’s words are so beautifully written, that I want to do them justice by directly quoting her:

 “Little is written about the heroes left at home, those who must smile bravely when they hug or kiss for the last time a loved one deployed to a war thousands of miles away.  These  heroes wake up every morning with a prayer on their lips, say several more during the day, and fall to sleep at night saying another.  They either watch too much news, look for a certain e-mail every morning, wait for the mail carrier, and hope the next ring of the phone is that call they’ve waited on for weeks.  They write letters every day and mail a package once a week.  They stand stoic and smile gratefully when someone asks how things are going.  Then, for some, the day comes when a military chaplain and a casualty officer knock nervously on their door and deliver the worst conceivable message.  These heroes are left with only a folded flag, a cabinet of awards and medals, a last letter, and a bittersweet pride that only military families understand.”  

It is because these stories go untold that Deborah began to chronicle her family’s life beginning with their rebellious, drug-addicted teenager who had overcome his addictions and found his calling in the military.   That transformation in Patrick and his passion for his work, only added to their grief, sacrifice, and journey towards healing.   Dave, a retired Sergeant Major in the U.S. Marines, had the hardest time accepting his son’s death, and wouldn’t talk or share his feelings with Deborah.  The book is candid and raw, portraying the depth of grief, anger and suffering, and the toll it can take on a marriage and family.   I was surprised that Deborah chose to write the book in third person and would love to know why.  Although a  moving story, I felt  it would have been even more powerful if she had told her story in the first person.   On the day of Patrick’s memorial service,  a red-tailed hawk appeared on an oak tree.  It  filled her with the memory of the spirit hawk legend and its great healing powers.  For Deborah, the hawk symbolized that Patrick had embraced his spirit hawk with all of his soul.  Thus, the title of the book.    

A year after Patrick’s death, Deborah and Dave became aware of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a nonprofit organization that provides  support for grieving military  families.  A portion of the proceeds of her book, go to TAPS.  She also has written another book, Surviving the Folded Flag, where parents of war share stories of coping, courage and faith.   Both she and Dave are active with TAPS and mentor many military families.   In an upcoming blog, I will focus on TAPS and other support organizations.