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.

Lord of the Mountain by Ronald Kidd

Lord of the Mountain

Ronald Kidd, Author

Albert Whitman & Company, Fiction, Sep. 1, 2018

Suitable for ages: 9-12

Pages: 296

Themes: Family Secrets, Grief, Family Relationships,  Mountain Music, Self-discovery

Synopsis:

Nate’s family has a secret. And it’s wrapped up in a song. Ever Since Nate Owens saw a needle glide across a 78-rpm record, he’s been fascinated by the science and beauty of music. Before long, he is devouring Popular Science magazines and making his own crystal set radio.

It’s the summer of 1927 when Victor Records producer Ralph Peer comes to Nate’s hometown of Bristol,  Tennessee/Virginia, to audition “mountain music” singers and musicians. There’s no way Nate is going to miss the chance to get inside the studio and learn the mechanics of the recording business. He becomes friends with the technical team, the soon-to-become famous Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. The only problem is, Nate’s preacher father hates music and says it is evil — forbidding it in his home and his church. When he discovers that Nate’s been hanging around musicians and producers, he comes down hard. With nothing left for Nate at home, he decides to take off in search of answers to his family’s troubled past. He carries with him a picture of a grave site that says “Sweet Sister” on it.

Nate hops a train with the help of a man he meets, Bill. Bill quickly educates Nate about the rails — when to get on and off, how to  hide his possessions in his shoes, and the dangers he may encounter. He learns that the homeless are called “hoboes” and that they have “jungle” camps in towns near train routes. They offer a place to sleep, shared food, safety from the police and other thugs.

Nate ends up in Poor Valley, where the Carter Family lives. They welcome him into their home and Nate begins to work for the family. They travel around the mountains in search of songs they can record for Victor Records. Along the way Nate stumbles upon his own past and the secrets that have driven his father to religious fanaticism.

Set during the “big bang” of country music, this exciting historical novel tells of one boy’s journey of self-discovery at a moment when an entire region was finding its voice for the first time.

Why I like this book:

Ronald Kidd has written a captivating novel that cleverly weaves together a 13-year-old boy’s journey to discover the deep wounds that grip his father/family, and pursue his love of music and the science behind the recording industry. Wow, this novel is a treasure for readers who like historical fiction. I learned so much about  the birth of country music, which was known in the late 1920s as “mountain music!” A lot of research went into this novel.

The main characters and minor ones are multi-layered and unforgettable. You get a real feel for the musical details of the period and the fabric of the community –the Carters and hoboes included. Nate is a strong and determined character, not willing to accept his father’s fanatic rantings to his tent congregation. He’s driven by his passion for science and learning. His younger brother, Arnie, wants to be his father. Nate’s mother is gentle and seems to understand Nate’s father for reasons he can’t understand. His best friend Sue Dean, is a lovely balance to Nate, but she also has her secrets. Both their families are dysfunctional.

The setting is vivid and realistic. The plot is bold and adventurous with an ending readers won’t forget.  Readers looking for something new and creative will enjoy this book. This is a perfect book for school libraries.

What a pleasure it was to read Ronald Kidd’s novel. I look forward to catching up with his other novels.  As other’s have mentioned, this novel reminds you of Vince Vawter’s work.

Ronald Kidd is the author of 13 novels for young readers, including the highly acclaimed “Night on Fire” and “Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial.” His novels of adventure, comedy, mystery, and American history have received the Children’s Choice Award, an Edgar Award nomination, and honors from the American Library Association, the International Reading Association, the Library of Congress, and the New York Public Library. He is a two-time O’Neill playwright who lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

Greg Pattridge hosts the 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 publisher.

My Father’s Words by Patricia MacLachlan

My Father’s Words

Patricia MacLachlan, Author

Katherine Tegen Books, Fiction, Oct. 2, 2018

Pages: 133

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Loss, Grief, Love, Healing, Family relationships, Shelter dogs

Synopsis:

Declan O’Brien always had a gentle word to share, odd phrases he liked to repeat, and songs to sing while he played basketball. His favorite song was “Dona Nobis Pacem,” “Grant Us Peace.” His family loved him deeply and always knew they were loved in return.

But a terrible accident one day changes their lives forever, and Fiona and Finn O’Brien are left without a father. Their mother is at a loss. What words are there to guide them through such overwhelming grief?

At the suggestion of their friend Luke, Fiona and Finn volunteer at an animal rescue shelter where they meet two sweet dogs, Emma and Jenny, who are in need of comfort, too. Perhaps with time, patience, and their father’s gentle words in their hearts, hope will spark once more.

Why I like this book

Patricia MacLachlan’s captivating and unforgettable story is about a tragic loss, family relationships, love, laughter and healing. It is a well-written story that is realistic, inspiring and hopeful. Her narrative is gentle and heartfelt. The text is spare and powerful. Some may feel the story is sad, but I experienced it with wonder and awe.

Fiona and Finn are working through their grief following their father’s untimely death. Fiona looks out for her younger brother, but she’s searching for memories of her time with her dad. Finn is a sensitive and gentle boy. He is quiet and thoughtful like his father. Their best friend, Luke, suggests they all volunteer at a local animal shelter. They each connect with and walk a dog. Finn reads, talks and sings “Dona Nobis Pacem” to Emma, who is depressed and faces a wall. Fiona takes Jenny for long walks in the park. The siblings learn that while you comfort a shelter dog, the dog is also comforting you.

This is perfect story for dog lovers. The plot is engaging, but the beautiful ending sneaks up on you. I thought I knew how it would end, but the author surprises me. Make sure you have tissues nearby. My Father’s Words is a refreshingly quiet book that gives readers time to ponder big questions and explore underlying truths and memories. It will make an excellent classroom read-aloud and discussion book.

Patricia MacLachlan is the celebrated author of many timeless books for young readers, including Sarah, Plain and Tall, winner of the Newbery Medal. Her novels for young readers include Skylark, Caleb’s Story, More Perfect than the Moon, Grandfather’s Dance, Word After Word After Word, Kindred Souls, The Truth of Me, and The Poet’s Dog; she is also the author of many beloved picture books, a number of which she cowrote with her daughter, Emily. She lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.

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.

*Library Copy

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.

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

The Stars Beneath Our Feet

David Barclay Moore, Author

Knopf Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Sep. 19, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 12 and up

Awards: Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent

Themes: African-American, Family relationships, Harlem, Gangs, Grief, Self-discovery, Friendship

Book Synopsis: It all started with two garbage bags full of Legos. Or not, maybe it started with the two thugs following 12-year-old Lolly down 125th that night.

Or maybe it was Jermaine’s dying. Or that fight they had before ‘Maine got shot. Yeah, probably it was that.

Lolly’s having a hard time knowing how to be without his older brother around. Seems like he’s either sad or mad. The thing that helps most is building. His mom’s girlfriend, Yvonne, gave him two huge bags of Legos for Christmas, and Lolly’s working on an epic city — a project so big it outgrows his apartment. The community center lets him work on his magical Lego city in a storage room which provides Lolly with an escape—and an unexpected bridge back to the world from his grief.

But there are dangers outside that persist. There are older guys who harass, beat up and rob Lolly and his friend Vega on the street. They pressure the boys to join a crew (gang), like his brother Jermaine. What would Jermaine want him to do? Get with a crew and take revenge? Or build a different kind of world for himself. Lolly’s going to have to figure this one out on his own.

Why this book is on my shelf:

David Barclay Moore has penned a powerful debut novel with a gripping plot and timely, real-life issues for young people of color. He opens readers eyes to how 12-year-old boys are easily targeted and drawn into gangs/crews as a way to survive. They don’t want to be part of gangs, but they are beaten, robbed, threatened and bullied into submission. It’s a way of life in many inner city neighborhoods where opportunities are limited. They believe that having the protection of a gang can save their lives, but it can also kill them, like Lolly’s brother, Jermaine.

I like how the author helps Lolly deal with his brother’s loss through imagination, creativity, and his love of architecture. Lolly builds epic cities with fantastic stories. He doesn’t realize that he is a gifted artist and storyteller headed for great things.

The relationship between two very unlikely friends, Lolly, who doesn’t know what to do with his anger and grief, and Big Rose, who is on the autism spectrum, is my favorite part of the story. Lolly is furious about the center’s director giving Rose permission to build Lego cities in the storage room with Lolly. But, then he begins to see her talent and speed at building. They end up traipsing all over New York City studying, photographing and drawing its unique architecture. They need each other and are important to each other’s growth healing.

A major reason the author wanted to write this novel is because he feels “there aren’t enough books that speak with the voices of the characters in his story.” For instance a slang word in one Harlem neighborhood may not even be used in another neighborhood a few blocks away. So the narrative is richly textured and thought-provoking, and offers hope and an opportunity for self-discovery.

This novel belongs in the hands of every teenager and middle grade and high school. It offers students the opportunity to engage in important discussions about real life and modern social issues.

David Barclay Moore was born and raised in Missouri. After studying creative writing at Iowa State University, film at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and language studies at l’Université de Montpellier in France, David moved to New York City, where he has served as communications coordinator for Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone and communications manager for Quality Services for the Autism Community. He has received grants from the Ford Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, Yaddo, and the Wellspring Foundation. He was also a semi-finalist for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. David now lives, works, and explores in Brooklyn, N.Y.  You can follow him at his website.

Greg Pattridge is the host for 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.

Fox Magic by Beverley Brenna

Fox Magic

Beverley Brenna, Author

Red Deer Press, Fiction, Dec. 15, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Pages: 115

Themes: Teen suicide, Grief, Loss, Bullying, Courage, Hope

Opening: The week after the Bad Thing happened, Chance is back in school. She’s walking away from the water fountain and Monika is right there in front of her.  “She was my cousin, you know,” Monika hisses. “It should have been you.”

Synopsis: Chance Devlin and her two best friends make a pact to commit suicide. They dress in their best clothes and meet at a planned site. Chance changes her mind and runs home. She doesn’t tell anyone. Now her two friends have killed themselves. Chance struggles with grief, loss, and guilt that she didn’t tell anyone or try to stop them. Kids at school bully her and leave nasty notes in her desk and backpack: “Traitor. You’re better off dead.” She keeps the Bad Thing a secret, feels empty inside and escapes through sleep.

Enter her parents. They immediately get Chance into counseling, which is agonizing for her. Her therapist encourages her to write in a journal. Her father is my hero. He takes some time off so he can be at home with Chance, cook her pancakes for breakfast, drive and pick her up from school, make her exercise with him in fun and sometimes nerdy places. And he takes her to see her mom at work as a nurse in a neonatal unit, where she observes the tender and loving care her mother gives each newborn.  Her father shares with her a very important story.

A fox begins to magically appear in her Chance’s life. The fox, she names Janet Johnson, helps Chance to begin to get in touch with her grief, the past, her feelings, find her voice and move forward towards healing.  Is it her subconscious? I like Brenna’s sweet touch of magical realism as it allows the readers to decide for themselves what the fox symbolizes.

Why this book is on my shelf:

Brenna’s coming of age novel is brave and skillfully written. Each chapter is short and features pen and ink drawings to highlight each chapter. Suicide is a difficult but timely subject for older middle grade students that offers a wealth of opportunities for family and classroom discussions. This is a hopeful book.

Brenna doesn’t linger on the suicide pact or reveal the details of that night, which makes this realistic story very approachable for middle grade students. The story is told from Chance’s viewpoint. Readers will grow with Chance’s character as she deals with pain and grief and finds the courage and determination to move forward in her life. She’s authentic, honest and believable. There are many memorable characters that play supportive roles in her growth.

Brenna is from Saskatchewan where there many Indigenous children. I like how she includes both “First Nation and Metis” beliefs in Chance’s classroom as the students talk about school bullying and come up with clever solutions. This classroom interaction plays another important role in Chance’s healing.

Resources: There is an excellent interview with Beverley Brenna with discussion questions, an afterword with a mental health professional, and resource links. Brenna has prepared a teacher’s guide on her website for use in the classroom.

Beverley Brenna is the author of the award-winning Wild Orchid series, about a girl on the autism spectrum. She teaches at the University of Saskatchewan in Suskatoon.

Greg Pattridge is the host for 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.

Undiscovered Country by Jennifer Gold

Undiscovered Country

Jennifer Gold, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Apr. 4,2017

Suitable for Ages: 13-18

Themes: Grief, Coming of age, South America, Humanitarian work, War, Mental Illness, Ethnic Minorities

Book Jacket Synopsis: You can run from grief, but it will follow…

Cat’s life is divided. There is the time Before her mom died, and After. When her mom got sick, Cat still did her homework and got accepted into a prestigious college, while her father slowly shut down. Now, everything seems meaningless.

Before, Cat was happy and had momentum. After, she feels stuck. And angry. There might be five stages of grief, but Cat can’t get past stage two. She’s so filled with rage, her doctor tries to medicate her. A pill to make her feel like a zombie? No thanks.

When Cat finds a brochure for Students Without Boundaries – a volunteer program that will send her to South America — she grabs it. It’s her escape from the memories of her mother and the reality of her absence. But life as a “voluntourist” is not an escape. The new people and places Cat meets bring new perspectives and challenges she never expected. Life may still have meaning after all.

Why I like this book:

Jennifer Gold has written a compelling coming of age story about Cat, who is trying to find meaning and purpose in her life after the death of her mother. Gold’s story is carefully crafted with skill and depth.

The story is written in first person with alternating chapters. The “Before” story focuses on Cat’s close bond with her mother throughout her battle with cancer and final moments of death. It is powerful and it carries secrets that will give readers insight into Cat’s choices to leave. “After,” shows Cat’s journey to the jungles of South America, the extreme hardships, poverty, violence, and danger she encounters and her important work in the Infirmary. The alternating chapters work because of the strong “Before” storyline.

The characters are authentic and vulnerable. Cat is a strong and convincing character that readers will connect with and like from the start. She knows that doing humanitarian work in of a war-torn country is a way for her to not dwell on her mother’s absence in her life. She meets other volunteers in the program, like Taylor, Margo, and Melody, who are running away from their own demons in a similar manner. Rafael is a local, who captures Cat’s heart. He heads up a local  resistance movement against the corrupt government and makes deals with some dark figures. Cat’s relationship with him is tricky and will challenge her to make grown-up decisions.

Readers will find the plot is courageous with complicated and multi-layered themes I haven’t even mentioned. The jungle setting is so realistic that readers will feel like they are dripping in sweat, slapping huge mosquitoes, and checking their boots every morning for snakes. It is not a safe place to be with danger an ever-present concern.  The tension is palpable and will keep readers engaged.

Jennifer Gold is a lawyer and mother of two. She is the author of the YA novel Soldier Doll. A history buff, she also has degrees in psychology, law, and public health. She lives in Toronto. Visit Gold online at her website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

*I was provided with a copy of this book from the publisher in turn for a fair and honest review.

The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

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The Warden’s Daughter

Jerry Spinelli, Author

Alfred A Knopf, Fiction, Jan. 3, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Themes: Growing up in a prison, Motherless, Grief, Coming of age, Courage

Opening: “It’s a BIRDHOUSE NOW. It used to be a jailhouse. The Hancock County Prison…It looks like a fortress from the Middle Ages…The prison was a city block long. It was home to over two hundred inmates, men and women, from shoplifters to murders. And one family. Mine. I was the warden’s daughter.”

Synopsis: Cammie O’Reilly lives in an apartment above the entrance to the Hancock County Jail in Pennsylvania with her father, the warden. She’s twelve years old and motherless. Her mother was killed in a tragic accident when she was a baby.  Cammie spends much of her time mad at the world and heaven.  She searches for mother figures in the only women she knows — the inmates she spends her mornings hanging out with in the women’s exercise yard. They are not ideal candidates, like the  flamboyant shoplifter named Boo Boo. But she settles on trying to make the family’s housekeeper, Eloda Pupko, her mother figure. Eloda understands Cammie better than anyone. She see’s Cammie’s torment, knows she is headed for trouble, and helps her grieve in an unexpected way.

Why I liked this book:

Spinelli’s novel will tug at reader’s heart-strings from the first page. This compelling and emotionally deep novel is a coming of age story about a troubled teen who has never really dealt with the tragic death of her mother — a mother she never had the chance to know. Instead she’s grown up in an odd and cold atmosphere not meant for a child. And she yearns for the warmth of a loving relationship with a mother and family. The subject of grief is realistically tackled with honesty and sensitivity.

Spinelli’s novel is fast-paced, tightly plotted, and the tension palpable. It will keep readers engaged. The story is driven by a cast of colorful characters who are dealing with their own demons. They add for many somber and humorous moments to the story. Cammie’s narrates the story with her strong voice, fiery personality and a determination that earns her the nickname Cannonball. She’s in danger of lighting the fuse, as her anger reaches a boiling point over the summer.

Readers will enjoy exploring the prison fortress and life behind bars, visiting the death tower with its dangling noose and hanging salamis, spending time in the prison exercise yard and meditation area, and walking the forbidden outside deck.

Jerry Spinelli is the author of many books for young readers, including Stargirl; Love, Stargirl; Milkweed; Crash; Maniac Magee, winner of the Newberry Medal; Wringer, winner of a Newbery Honor; Eggs; Jake and Lily; and Knots in my Yo-yo String, his autobiography.  Visit Jerry Spinelli at his website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

The Grand Wolf by Avril McDonald

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The Grand Wolf

Avril McDonald, Author

Tatiana Minina, Illustrator

Crown House Publishing Limited, Fiction, Apr. 26, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 4-7

Themes: Animals, Wolf, Death, Dealing with Grief, Accepting Change, Friendship

Opening: “Once in a while, / on a clear sunny day, / Wolfgang would go / to the Grand Wolf’s to play.”

Synopsis: Wolfgang and his friends enjoyed visiting the Grand Wolf.  Grand Wolf always had fresh bread baking in his house and toys in his shed. He’d take Wolfgang on long walks and show him things in the forest. But one day when Wolfgang and his friends went for their visit, they sensed something was wrong. The Wise Owl tells them that Grand Wolf has died. At first they are angry and don’t believe Owl.  Spider helps them deal with their grief and reminds them Grand Wolf will always be in their hearts and memories.

Why I like this book:

I am in awe of Avril McDonald’s tender and wise book about dealing with grief. The lovely rhythmic language and the beautiful illustrations blend perfectly to explore the emotional journey of love and loss, breaking your heart and then helping it to heal.  The book is so well written and talks about death in such a way that is perfect for children.  Wolfgang and his friends express their disbelief and anger and share their tears as Wise Owl and Spider support them, help them deal with this major change in their lives and remind them that just because someone is gone doesn’t mean they have left your heart.  Tatiana Minina’s colorful, bold and expressive illustrations really contribute to the book’s message.

The Grand Wolf is part of McDonald’s Feel Brave Series of books which are designed to help children deal with real life situations, manage tough emotions and reach their potential. Each book tells a story about a real life situation that children may face and offers simple coping strategies.  Each of the five books helps children deal with self-confidence, anxiety and fears, change, grief, loss, worries and bullying.  Follow Avril McDonald on her Feel Brave website.

Resources: This book is a great discussion book and resource for families and educators to use to talk about death with young children.  It is a helpful book for a family dealing with grief, approaching grief or separation. There is also a Feel Brave Teaching Guide available along with a CD.

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 Perfect Picture Books.

Be Light Like a Bird by Monika Schroder

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Monika Schroder, Author

Capstone Young Readers, Fiction, Sep. 1, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Grief, Bereavement, Mother and daughter, Moving, Family relationships, Friendships, Birdwatching, Nature

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Wren buries roadkill to make herself feel better. Her ritual begins after her father is killed in a plane crash and she never has the opportunity to say goodbye. Her mother tells Wren to pack up her belongings and forces her to leave their home in Georgia and drive north on I-75 in search of a new life. Their first stop is in Chattanooga, Tennessee, then Wapakoneta, Ohio, and finally Pyramid, Michigan, near the Canadian border. With each stop, Wren starts a new school. By the time they reach Pyramid, Wren is determined that this is where their journey will end. She’s tired of being the new girl in school and she wants a place to call home. Her mom finds a job in a retirement home and Wren and her mother work to build a new life. Wren has a good feeling about Pyramid. She discovers a magical place in a forest with a pond and a lot of birds.  She pulls out a bird-watching journal her father has given her and begins to record her sightings. Wren discovers that her perfect place is called Pete’s Pond and that a developer is planning to destroy the area and turn it into a landfill. When Wren teams up with Theo, a nerdy boy at school, to work on a public issue project, she finds the perfect partner in her effort to save Pete’s Pond. Wren begins to find herself, learn about community, forgive those who don’t deserve it, rediscover family, and decide her own direction.

Why I like this book:

Monika Schroder’s has written a sensitive and emotionally deep story about how Wren deals the tragic death of her father. Although the book is about loss, it is also about friendship, courage and embracing life. It has a quirkiness about it that is refreshing. I especially like Schroder’s expertly written prologue and first chapter, which draw the reader into the story from the get-go. The narrative is expertly written in Wren’s voice.

Readers will be captivated by Wren’s unconventional character. She is a strong spirit who loves bird-watching, deals with both her father’s death and a comatose mother, outsmarts bullies, and takes on a major environmental issue. Wren’s mother works two jobs, refuses to talk about her father, and emotionally abandons her daughter. Their complex relationship begins to unravel as secrets and betrayals are revealed. Theo, who is considered the class nerd, proves to be a very resourceful partner. He understands the pain of losing a parent and is a good friend. Together they grow and become a powerful voice in the community. Randle, a Chippewa Indian who owns a junkyard for cars, adds a special twist to the story.

This beautifully crafted story is multi-layered and filled with vivid imagery. Schroder uses roadkill as a symbolic image to show how both Wren and Theo deal with their sadness in losing a parent. I have never seen anything like it before and it works well in this story. Wren buries dead animals. Theo takes pictures of roadkill. Both are looking for a way to come to terms with their heartache and find closure. The plot is distinctly realistic and fast-paced. The ending is unexpected and satisfying.

This is an excellent classroom discussion book as there are many substantive topics that can be discussed: grief, bullying, peer pressure, protecting the environment, and ancient Native American burial grounds.

Monika Schroder grew up in Germany, but has lived and worked in American international schools in Egypt, Oman, Chile, and India. She moved to the US in 2011. She is the author of My Brother’s Shadow, Saraswati’s Way (my review), and a The Dog in the Wood. You can find out more about Schroder on her website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.