Category Archives: sad

All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg

It is once again time to start reading the nominees for this year’s Virginia Readers’ Choice Award.  I love reading my way through this list every year!  There are always titles I missed when they first came out, and a great variety of books, so reading and talking about these titles is a great way to start off a new school year.

The first title I want to share this year is Ann E. Burg’s All the Broken Pieces.

This is really an incredible book.  As someone who is not inclined to love historical fiction, and also not inclined to love novels written in verse, I will admit that I chose it as one of the first from the list to read because I wanted to get it out of the way.  I thought I would like it okay, but I didn’t expect to be as enthusiastic as I am about to be.  As it turns out, I loved this book.

The story takes place in the United States, a few years after the end of the Vietnam War, and centers on a boy named Matt Pin.  Matt grew up in Vietnam and was given by his mother to American soldiers as the war was ending.  He has loving adoptive parents; a kind piano teacher and baseball coach; and a great pitching arm.  But he also has intense, vivid memories of growing up surrounded by war; confusion and sadness about his mother’s choice to hand him to the soldiers, staying behind in Vietnam with his injured younger brother; and real problems with bullies who blame him for the war and the pain it has caused their families.  This is a heavy load for a 12-year-old kid.

But here’s what I love about this story.  It is a heavy load, no doubt, and the book doesn’t shy away from that.  There are scenes from the war, Matt’s memories, that are tough to read and will be tough for sensitive readers.  But there is nothing gratuitous, and I feel like Burg was very aware of her audience in writing this story.  She was careful to convey the reality/horror in an appropriate way and realistic about Matt’s struggles in coping with his past, but she balanced these out with positive scenes and emotions that were just as realistic .  The book is very readable for a wide range of kids; the simplicity of the language and verse form make it friendly for a kid who is not a huge reader, and the depth of emotion and complexity of the situation make it a great story for a more advanced reader.   Highly recommended!

P.S.  This is a great choice for kids who enjoyed Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai.  I preferred this over that book; I felt like the verse form made more sense here than it did to me there, for some reason.  But I have had kids who, on hearing me talk about All the Broken Pieces, say that they read and loved Inside Out & Back Again, and I think this is a great next read for them.  I’ll be curious to hear how they compare the two.

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The One and Only Ivan

Have a hankie handy when you read this one.  For sad tears and for happy ones.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is the story of a gorilla, Ivan, who has lived for decades as one of a handful of animals at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall, a combination shopping mall, arcade, and tiny roadside circus.  Ivan has friends–elephant Stella, stray dog Bob, and Julia, the young daughter of the man who cleans the windows of his cage.  He has his art–drawings he makes with crayons and paper slipped into his cage by Julia and that his owner, Mack, sells for $25 each (with frame).  He tries not to think about what he doesn’t have–freedom, companionship of other gorillas, space to roam around and explore.  The painted jungle on one wall of his cage is as close as he can come to that, and he learned when he was very young that wanting more would just cause him more pain than he could bear.

So, he doesn’t think about it.  Until a baby elephant, named Ruby, comes to live at the Big Top Mall.  When he sees Ruby, and envisions her future as a lifetime spent in a small cage, Ivan does begin to think.  His protective instincts kick in, and he comes up with a plan that he hopes will lead to a better life for Ruby, and maybe for himself as well.

What I love about this book:  it is moving, and I would call it a feel-good book in the end, but it doesn’t shy away from some harsh realities of how animals are treated in some environments.  As Ivan talks about in the novel, there are good humans, and there are bad humans.  We see both kinds in this novel.  This is definitely a good book to give to kids who love animals, but I think I would let the kids know that there are a few places in the book that are difficult to stomach, especially if reading about an animal being hurt or dying is too much.  It ends on a very happy note, but there is some rough stuff along the way.

I also love Ivan’s voice.  I did not expect to love this book, because the concept of a gorilla narrator seemed hokey to me, but Applegate really pulls it off.  Within a few chapters, I was able to suspend any disbelief I had and just surrender myself to the story.  I’m not sure how to explain it, but Ivan’s voice came off as authentically gorillan to me, even though I know that a gorilla would not actually think or talk that way.  Maybe what I want to say is that Applegate didn’t simply stick human thoughts into a gorilla narrator; she tried to imagine how the world would really look to a gorilla, and how, if a gorilla could think and talk in our language, that would look/sound.

As far as age range, this one is excellent for grades 4-6.  The chapters are short, and there is an added bonus of beautiful illustrations by Patricia Castelao.  But I would not limit this book to younger readers.  The subject matter of animal rights is something that could interest any reader, and while the language is somewhat simple, the story being told is complex.  I certainly learned some things in reading this story.

I suspect we’ll see this on some Newbery lists, for good reason.  Highly recommended.

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The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars got bumped to the top of my to-read list because one of my students, a 5th grade boy who is a self-professed nerd and huge fan of Green’s work on Vlogbrothers (which I confess I haven’t yet spent much time looking at), declared so sweetly and intensely and repeatedly his love for it.  After saying to this young man three times, “I’m sorry, I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet,” I really couldn’t live with myself any longer.  So I picked it up at last this morning, and spent the day soaking it in.

First, let me say that it is a rare 5th grade boy who will appreciate this book (I am dying to hear more about what he loved about it), but oh my, I can think of many, many older middle schoolers and upper schoolers who will devour it and come back asking for more stuff just like it.  There is some sex (not explicit, but the main characters are 16 and 17 years old, and it is part of their world) and some language and some heavy-duty subject matter (love and death, in particular), but in my opinion, all of those things in this particular book add to the beauty and reality of the novel.   This is not an easy, light read, but at the same time, it drew me in quickly and I flew through it one day.  I laughed out loud at several points, and teared up at several others.  I think if I had read it at age 14, I would have loved it even more.  It’s cliche to say it, but the novel is heartbreakingly funny and sad.  Hazel (the narrator) would cringe at that description, but it’s the truth.

The basic plot:  the narrator, Hazel, has had terminal cancer since she was 13 and is (understandably) quite depressed about her situation.  She meets Augustus, who is in remission from the bone cancer that took his leg, at a support group meeting, and the friendship/romance that develops between them is the focus on the novel.  Both Hazel and Augustus are wicked smart, funny, quirky, and thoughtful, and as a reader I kind of fell in love with both of them as they fell in love with each other.

I don’t know what it’s like to have cancer as a young person, or even to know someone in that situation.  I do have a close friend with a terminal illness, and I thought of her a lot as I read this book.  She doesn’t like to read books about people dying, so I’ll never know if I’m right, but I had the thought many times that things Hazel said would probably ring true for my friend, and I felt like maybe I came away with a slightly better understanding of what it might be like to be in my friend’s shoes.  And isn’t that what great books do–shine a little light on the mysteries of life that we ourselves haven’t experienced, or make us feel a bit less lonely in the ones we have.

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A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I’m not going to be able to write intelligently about this book, so maybe I shouldn’t even try.  I just finished it, and I just want to go sob somewhere or something.

This is a beautiful, heartbreaking, complex book.  Even the story behind the book is beautiful, heartbreaking, and complex: Siobhan Dowd had an idea, but passed away from cancer before she could write the story.  Patrick Ness was asked to write the book, and as he says in the Author’s Note, he knew he couldn’t write the story Dowd would have written.  He decided to try to write a story she would approve of.  I believe he succeeded.

Conor O’Malley’s mother is very sick, possibly dying.  One night at 12:07, the yew tree from a nearby graveyard forms itself into a giant, frightening monster and comes crashing into his room.  Thus begins a series of visitations from the monster, who, like everything and every character in this novel, is no simple creature.  Is he evil?  Is he kind?  Is he destructive?  Is he gentle?  Yes to all of these, and more.  He yells, he rages, he destroys, and he tells stories in which the bad guys seem to win.  But he also seems to be there to help Conor sort out his problems–with his mother’s illness, his father’s absence, his grandmother’s coldness, his classmates’ bullying.

This little book, with its dark illustrations (beautifully wrought by Jim Kay) and its suspenseful scenes and its quirky but compelling premise, grabbed me from the very beginning and did not let go.  The beauty of this novel for me is how accurately it portrays this messy business of being human.  We have thoughts we wish we didn’t have, do things we wish we hadn’t done, hurt and are hurt by the people we love and who love us.  Nothing is ever tied up quite as neatly as many novels for children would have us believe or hope.  How wonderful of Ness to take all of that complexity and deliver it in a tight, suspenseful novel that I expect kids and adults alike will be moved by.

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Filed under fiction, sad, suspense

Buzz Books (aka, My To-Read List)

Part of my job is reading reviews of books and following the blog buzz about which books are favorites to win awards (like the Newbery Medal, the Sibert Medal for kids’ nonfiction, or the National Book Award).  I don’t have the time to read everything I want to read, but with two weeks of holiday break approaching, I am putting together my To-Read List, based in large part on the buzz surrounding these titles.  Anything here is pretty much guaranteed to be well-written.  It might not appeal to a particular kid’s taste, but you needn’t worry about any of these books being awful!

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai recently won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.  This one has been on my list for months, and I hope to read it soon and book talk it with kids.  It’s the story of a young Vietnamese girl’s journey to America, specifically Alabama, after the fall of Saigon, and her struggle to adjust to a very different world from the one she has known.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.   This is a novel about loss.  I am, I confess, a complete sucker for sad books.  Even the story behind the writing of this book is sad.  Siobhan Dowd (who wrote the wonderful and quirky London Eye Mystery) came up with the idea for this book, but died of cancer before she could write it.  Patrick Ness (author of the Chaos Walking trilogy, which I wrote about in my post about Hunger Games read-alikes) picked up the idea and wrote the story.  Many of the reviewers seem to be flummoxed in trying to describe this novel, because of its inventiveness and power, and that tells me I must read it.

Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s children by his slave Sally Hemmings, from the perspectives of two of the children and another child close to the family.  I’m hearing that’s it’s uncomfortable, thought-provoking, engaging, and poignant.  A must-read, I suspect.

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy mixes fantasy and historical fiction, set in the early 1950s.  Janie’s family has been forced to move to London due to the “Red Scare” in America, and there she meets a boy named Benjamin, the son of a mysterious apothecary.  Everyone I’ve talked to who has read this has loved it (kids and adults!).

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick.  If you haven’t already seen Hugo (based on Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret), stop reading this and go immediately to a theater.  If you have, then you are probably already as excited to read another creation of Brian Selznick as I am.  ‘Nuff said.

Bigger than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder.  My own 5th grader read this last week.  She loved it, and I’m hoping she’ll write up a guest review of it for this blog, so I won’t say more.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente.  This one is being described as “beautiful,” “unforgettable,” “magical.”  Reviewer Elizabeth Bird on Goodreads writes that it “walks up to the usual middle grade chapter book fantasy tropes and slaps ’em right smack dab in the face.”  For kids and adults tired of derivative fantasy, this sounds like a viable option.

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming.  I have actually already read a good bit of this one, but a kid came looking for it, so I let it go before I was finished, and I am anxious to get it back and finish!  Very engaging and interesting, and it gives some interesting facts, particularly about Earhart’s self-promotion tactics.

Some other titles on my list:

Chime by Franny Billingsley.  Mary Kendall (co-worker) has read this and gives it a big thumbs up for 7th and 8th graders.

My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson.

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt.  A companion book to the wonderful Wednesday Wars.  Kids are giving me a lot of good feedback on this one.  Another good choice for 7th and 8th graders.

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Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor

Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor is not an easy read for a kid, because Addie, the 12-year-old girl at the center of novel, does not have an easy life.  She lives in a small trailer with her neglectful mother–and when I say “neglectful,” I mean it–and desperately misses her stepfather and younger siblings, who have moved away because of her mother’s inability to function and care for the children.  Addie gets to visit them, but even those visits are difficult because they highlight for her what she does not have: a stable, loving home.  Addie is a kid who has to fend for herself, physically and emotionally, and it can be heartbreaking to read her story.  But in spite of her difficult situation, Addie is full of spirit and spunk and optimism, and her character moves and teaches readers about strength and perseverance and the power of community.

And, hey, in addition to educational value, kids simply LOVE this book.  Addie is a character they can relate to; even if her life circumstances are very different from their own, her voice and feelings make sense to them.  I sometimes have a difficult time getting a kid to check out the book (the plot description is daunting, I think), but when they do take it, they almost always come back saying, “I really liked that book.  Do you have more like it?” and/or come back a year later saying, “I want to reread that book.”  My own daughter (age 11) read a library copy, then chose it as her annual book to donate to the lower school library, and then bought her own copy at the school book fair.  If that’s not book love, I don’t know what is!

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Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls

When I was about 12, I read Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die, a slim novel about a girl coming to terms with her older sister’s death from cancer.  Then I read it again.  Then I read it yet again.  I don’t know how many times I ultimately read that book, but I can tell you that I still have that same battered copy, and the folds and stains on the pages attest to many, many travels through them.

Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls has a similar magic, I think.  The narrator, a boy named Sam, is dying from leukemia.  The book is a collection of Sam’s journal entries, lists, questions (mostly ones that grown-ups refuse to answer or can’t answer, like “How do you know when you’ve died?”), goals, and sketches.  Sam loves science (the fun kind, where you learn about UFOs and loch ness monsters, and make volcanoes that actually blow up), and he approaches his illness like he would a complicated science experiment–observing, asking questions, researching possible answers.  He knows he is dying; he wants to understand why and what it means and what will happen next.  Sam and his best buddy Felix, who also has cancer, have very different ways of seeing and coping with their illness, and their friendship adds a lot of humor and a bit of adventure to the story.

The result is a story that is, all at once, tender, hilarious, sad, and hopeful.  Kids who I’ve talked to about this book always ask, “Is it sad?  Did you cry?”  Yes, I cried.  Yes, it is sad.  But it is also funny, and quirky, and true.  Sam doesn’t seem like a character in a book.  He seems like a real boy, with real questions that don’t always have answers, and it feels like a gift to be able to go on this journey with him.

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