Modern kids’ and YA fiction doesn’t go easy on its readers. Some of the best books out there look honestly at topics as real and raw as war, racial injustice, and poverty, giving readers a safe space to engage deeply with these topics, and guidance to help them understand and respond in healthy, constructive ways. This week’s Ten highlights stories about loss and grief. Though the stories are sometimes painful to read, they almost always end with hope: in friendship, memory, and new things to come.
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
Caitlin’s brother, Devon, used to help her understand how things worked and what she was supposed to do. A handy thing when you have Asperger’s, and a lot of what people do (and expect) really doesn’t make sense. But Devon was killed in a school shooting, and with their dad turning his back on the world in an attempt to cope, Caitlin’s left pretty much on her own to figure things out. A counselor at school helps some, and so does her friendship with a younger boy she meets at recess. But Caitlin wants closure, and she’s going to have to find it for herself.
Loon Summer written by Barbara Santucci and illustrated by Andrea Shine
This is the first year that Rainie and her dad will spend summer at the lake without Rainie’s mum. Rainie is still processing her parents’ divorce, and nothing feels right without the whole family there. As the summer progresses, though, Rainie begins to see that while life is different with only one parent nearby, it is still good.
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher
Jamie lost his older sister, Rose, in a terrorist bombing five years ago, and his family has been a mess ever since. Jamie was only little at the time, and Rose doesn’t really feel like part of his life, now, but he sure wishes his family was closer. With a little luck, he just might have a plan to make that happen.
Hunter in the Dark by Monica Hughes
Mike’s got it all. His parents are well educated and well off, glad to give him the best of everything money can buy. His best friend has the kind of family that crowds the dinner table every evening, and Mike’s always welcome to join in. So when Mike gets cancer, it just doesn’t seem real. Mike knows the treatments aren’t going well, but no one around him will talk about it. Determined to take some control of his own situation, Mike heads out on a solo hunting trip — but the time alone gives him plenty of opportunity to think about, and finally understand, what he’s facing.
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Clay is included in a list of thirteen reasons why his classmate Hannah committed suicide. A note asks him to listen to a collection of audiotapes that describe those reasons before passing the set on to the next reason/listener. Most of the story is told in Hannah’s voice, as she works through the events and reactions that brought her to the point of suicide.
A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle
Death is everywhere Vicky looks this summer. A family friend was killed attempting to rescue a careless boater. Her grandfather is dying of cancer. An old friend turns up who recently lost his mother. And she keeps running into a little girl at the hospital who’s fighting a battle that seems far beyond her years. When it all becomes too much for Vicky, help comes from an unexpected, but strangely appropriate, source.
Charlotte’s Web written by E.B. White and illustrated by Garth Williams and Rosemary Wells
First Fern, and then Charlotte and the rest of the animals fight to keep Wilbur from going the way of other barnyard pigs, but in the end it is Charlotte who dies, peacefully and with comforting words for those around her. While the novel celebrates life, the acceptance of death (in its time) as a good and proper part of life is an important part of its message.
The Ballad of Knuckles McGraw by Lois Peterson
When Kevin’s mother tucks a note into his lunchbox, “Please look after my son. I can’t take care of him anymore,” everything changes. Kevin, needing space to process the loss of his mother and find his place in his new foster home, creates a new identity for himself. “Knuckles McGraw” is tough and self-sufficient, but while those qualities seem to help at first, after awhile Kevin realises that letting other people in might be the only way to figure out where he really belongs.
Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird by Jean Little
Sent to live with an aunt for the summer while their parents stay in the city, it is only after any hope of recovery is gone that Jeremy and his little sister find out that their father has cancer. A new friend, with her own history of grief, helps Jeremy to cope, and gradually to heal in the months following his father’s death.
Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls
This is the third time Sam’s had leukemia, and the doctors are pretty sure that this time will be his last. Sam decides to write a book about his last few months, full of lists, unanswered questions, pictures, and his favourite interesting facts. When a fellow cancer patient, Felix, challenges him to make an ambitious wish list happen, the two boys set out to accomplish the (apparently) impossible.