Archive for Death and Grief

Booktalk: The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

Boy in the Black Suit cover

Jason Reynolds was already a published author when he skyrocketed to YA fame with his 2014 novel When I Was the Greatest.  With 2015’s The Boy in the Black Suit, he once again takes a sensitive, realistic, and powerful look at the life of a troubled teenage boy in an urban setting.  Give this book to any teens you know who could appreciate a realistic fiction story about death, grief, identity, families, and friendship.

BOOKTALK:

After Matt’s mother passed away, his life went in some unexpected directions.  Unfortunately, most of those directions were bad.  Many of the kids and teachers at his school stopped talking to him or avoided him, almost like his mother’s cancer was contagious.  Then his father started drinking again, and life at home got even worse.  Matt felt like he was more alone than he’d ever been before.

Then Matt got a new job to help pay the bills, and that job saved his life.  Which is a little weird, because his new job was all about death.  You see, Matt’s new job was working at a funeral parlor, helping people who had just lost loved ones of their own.  He started wearing a black suit every day to school, and that got him even more weird looks than before.  But even though Matt had been feeling so depressed because of his mom, his dad, and his friends, working at the funeral parlor and attending the funerals of strangers starts to reopen his heart in ways he never expected.

Booktalk: Invincible by Amy Reed

Invincible cover

Are you and your teens looking for #sicklit books?  Are you looking for books that are filled with happiness and sadness and sickness and romance and dashed hopes?  Would you like to read one of my top tearjerker contenders of 2015?  Well, check out Invincible by Amy Reed, and get ready to be crushed by ALL THE FEELS.

Seriously, though.  This book made me cry so much that it was embarrassing.

Enjoy!!!

BOOKTALK:

Evie knows that her days are numbered.  She has to deal with the cold hard fact that she’s living in the cancer ward, that she’s NEVER going to get better, and that she’s nearing the end of her life.  She’s growing apart from the people she used to know, and the girl she used to be.  As each day passes, she’s pulling further and further away from her friends, her boyfriend, and even her family.  Because she isn’t that pretty, popular, loving girl anymore.  She’s not the Evie that they used to know.  Now she’s a different girl altogether, a girl who hangs out with other sick kids like Caleb and Stella in the cancer ward.  Now she’s a girl who’s waiting to die, or a girl who’s waiting to see which of her friends die first.

But here’s the thing — Evie doesn’t die after all.  She gets better.  On the one hand that seems like the best news in the world.  But on the other hand … it isn’t.  Because Evie already spent a huge part of her life saying goodbye to everyone who used to be important to her.  The more time passes, Evie is going to realize that she’s not the same person she used to be.  And that living can be even harder than dying.

Evie gets her life back.  But what kind of life is she going to have?  And what kind of person is she going to be?

Booktalk: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright Places cover

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven is a poignant and heartfelt story that made me cry every time I read it.  Give this book to any of your teens who are looking for realistic fiction about real-life problems, for books that give an honest portrayal of death and grief, and for books about friendship and love.

BOOKTALK:

Finch and Violet have known about each other for a while, but they don’t really KNOW each other.  They both go to the same school, but that’s about all they have in common.  Violet is a beautiful, popular girl.  Everyone knows her and everyone likes her.  Finch, on the other hand, isn’t popular at all.  He only has a few friends, and everyone else just thinks that he’s weird and he’s a loner.

In fact, one of the weird things that Finch does is go to the bell tower at school, climb to the top, and hang out on the ledge.  He never jumps, he just THINKS about jumping.  He hangs out by himself on the ledge of the bell tower, and he thinks about ending his own life.  He thinks about what it would be like to die, and to escape this life that makes him so unhappy.

And that’s why when Violet climbs the steps of the bell tower and steps out on the ledge, Finch happens to be just a few feet away.  Because he was already there.  Now, Finch has been up on the ledge several times before, and no one’s ever tried to stop him.  Maybe it’s because he’s weird, or unpopular, or forgettable.  But Violet is none of those things.  When she goes out on the ledge, people notice right away.  When Violet’s friends come over to see what’s wrong, Finch decides to save her, or at least to save her reputation.  He tells people that the reason Violet came up to the ledge of the bell tower was to try to save him.  Even though they both know that’s not true.

Up until now, Finch and Violet didn’t know each other, they had nothing in common, and they definitely weren’t friends.  But ever since they met on that ledge and actually spoke to each other, things started to change between them.  As the days turn into weeks and months and they get to know each other better, they’ll realize that they have more in common than they ever imagined.

Booktalk: I Was Here by Gayle Forman

I Was Here book cover

I Was Here by Gayle Forman is a poignant and powerful book about teen suicide and the power of friendship.  Fans of Gayle Forman’s earlier novels, especially the major tearjerker If I Stay, will find lots to love in this book, as well.

BOOKTALK:

By the time Cody found out that her best friend Meg wanted to kill herself, it was already too late to stop her.  Meg sent several time-delayed emails: to Cody, to her parents, and to the police department letting them know that she was committing suicide and where they would find her body.  Meg had family and friends who loved her, but when she died, she was all alone in a hotel room.  When Cody found out what happened to her friend, she was filled with anger, grief, and a lot of questions about what happened and why.

Cody goes to Meg’s apartment, she meets her friends and roommates, and she reads her emails.  But as she learns about Meg’s life she has even more questions than before.  Did Meg really kill herself, or did someone else push her to do it?  Could anyone have stopped this from happening?  Could CODY have stopped this from happening?  If Cody had been a better friend, a better listener, or a better person, would Meg still be alive today?

A lot of people feel sorry for Cody.  They just think of her as “the dead girl’s friend.”  Cody is filled with anger and sadness, and she feels like she can’t go on with her own life until she figures out what really happened to Meg.  Now Cody is going to try to put the pieces of Meg’s life together until she truly understands who she was and why she’s gone.

Booktalk: How They Croaked by Georgia Bragg

How They Croaked cover

How They Croaked by Georgia Bragg combines two of my favorite qualities.  It’s a collective biography, which has added appeal for readers who are intimidated by the idea of reading “a whole book,” PLUS it has plenty of gross-out appeal!  Frankly, any day that I can ominously ask a group of kids if they’ve had lunch yet is a good day for me.

Collective biographies also have an extra plus in the booktalking department, which is that if you lose your place and forget someone, it’s okay.  I’ve shortened this booktalk since I first wrote it — I also talked about Cleopatra and Mozart in earlier versions of this booktalk, but those were the people most likely to leave my head so they didn’t make the final cut.

While this has been one of the more entertaining books I’ve shared during class visits recently (it’s been circulating more than most of the fiction books I’ve shared!) it’s also been one of the more frustrating ones.  That’s because I’ve had to do lots of stopping and starting as students interrupt me to ask the meanings of words — “guillotine” and “croaked” have been recent stumpers.  And talking about this book has led to more follow-up questions from students and teachers alike who want to know about how other famous people died.  So I’ve definitely learned that this booktalk might take longer than I expect!

BOOKTALK:

How They Croaked is a nonfiction book, which means that all of the stories in here are absolutely true.  And MOST of the stories are pretty gross.  In fact, the introduction to this book begins with a warning that says If you don’t have the guts for gore, don’t read this book!  

Uh … you guys haven’t had lunch yet, right?

Okay, so let me tell you about some of the people you can read about in this book.  Some famous deaths happened from a very direct cause.  For example, Julius Caesar died because he was stabbed dozens of times by the Roman senators.  Marie Antoinette died because her head was cut off with a guillotine during the French Revolution.  Those deaths were pretty straightforward.

Then there were the deaths that could have been prevented if people knew then what we know now.  For example, Galileo used to drink wine instead of water because hundreds of years ago water could be very dangerous to drink.  But it turns out that the wine he was drinking was stored in casks made with lead, so he died of lead poisoning.  Marie Curie was a famous scientist who studied radioactive material, and she died from radiation poisoning.

But one of the WORST examples of a death that could have been prevented was president James Garfield.  He’s one of our least famous presidents, because he was only president for four months before someone shot him in the back while he was standing in a train station.  The first doctor who arrived on the scene tried to find the bullet inside Garfield’s body by sticking his finger into the bullet hole.  Soon, more doctors arrived, and each one poked their fingers into the hole to try to find the bullet, but none of them could find it.

I should probably mention at this point that none of them wore gloves and none of them washed their hands!

Garfield wasn’t expected to live for another day, but in fact he lived for another 80 days, with infection spreading through his body and making him sicker and sicker.  It wasn’t until he died and an autopsy was performed that doctors could see that the bullet wasn’t anywhere near the bullet hole, but it also wasn’t near any vital organs.  So it wasn’t the bullet that killed him — it was infection that did.

If you’d like to learn more about different famous people throughout history — how they lived, how they died, and what happened to their bodies after they were dead, then you should DEFINITELY read —

How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg

Booktalk: Dear Marcus: A Letter to the Man Who Shot Me by Jerry McGill

Dear Marcus cover

I first checked out Dear Marcus by Jerry McGill because I’d heard it referred to as “the #1 book in juvie,” and I wondered what kind of book could entice kids in juvenile detention centers. As soon as I started reading it, I was swept up in the universal questions that it raised about forgiveness, about anger and grief, and about how often each of us look back on our lives and wonder “what if?”

Many library systems including mine have this book shelved in their adult collections.  That’s understandable because it’s written from an adult perspective, but it’s also understandable that it would have lots of crossover teen appeal because so much of it focuses on the author’s youth.  This would make a great book to share with older teens who are fans of real-life survivor stories, and it would also make a great topic for a book discussion.

BOOKTALK:

Jerry McGill was 13 years old when he was shot in the back by a stranger.  He had been a smart kid with a promising future.  He was great at sports, he could dance, and he was popular.  But then one bullet changed everything.

Jerry spent a lot of time thinking about the “what ifs.”  What if he hadn’t been out on the street that night?  What if he and his friends hadn’t stopped to play video games on the way home?  What if they had walked home a different way?  Jerry and Eric had been walking next to each other — what if the man had decided to shoot Eric instead?

What if, what if, what if?

But all the what ifs in the world don’t matter, because Jerry was shot and his life changed forever.  When he wasn’t thinking about the what ifs, he was thinking about the person who did this to him.  Was it a boy or was it a man?  Why did he shoot him?  Was it accidentally or on purpose?  Was he proud afterwards, or did he regret it?  Is he still alive, or is he dead?  Is he in prison, or is he free?

Jerry has no idea, because they never caught the person who did this to him.  But he can imagine that person.  He imagines that the person who shot him is named Marcus, and that whether he was a boy or a man on the day he pulled the trigger, he’s definitely a man by now.  This book is a letter from Jerry to Marcus, filled with all the things he wants to say to the man who ruined and transformed his life.

Booktalk: More Than This by Patrick Ness

More Than This cover

More than This by Patrick Ness is a profound book that is difficult to categorize, in part because the reader doesn’t fully understand this world until it unfolds.  And even by the end of the story … well, let’s just say this book raises more questions than it answers.  It’s a richly rewarding story, and one that will have a strong impact on teens, especially on curious teens who enjoy taking their minds in new directions.

BOOKTALK:

Seth was dead, and then he was alive again.  The last thing he remembered was swimming in the ocean.  He remembered the pull of the undertow and how he was fighting against the waves, and that no matter how hard he tried to swim away from the rocks, he couldn’t.  He remembered the waves dashing him against the rocks.  He remembered the sound of his shoulder blade snapping in two, so loud that he could even hear it underwater.  He remembered drowning  … and then he remembered waking up here.  Wherever “here” is.

Seth doesn’t know if he’s dead, or alive, or dreaming.  He doesn’t know if he’s in heaven, or hell, or somewhere in between.  All he knows is is that he woke up in front of a house that looks vaguely familiar.  He doesn’t know exactly where he is, but when he steps inside the house it feels like he’s been here before, a very long time ago.  He also knows that wherever he is, he’s completely alone.  He listens carefully, but he can’t hear the sound of any people, or animals, or birds, or even insects.  This world is completely silent.

Seth doesn’t know what kind of place this is, or why it feels familiar, or what happened to everybody else.  He doesn’t have the answers to any of these questions … YET.

Booktalk: The Riverman by Aaron Starmer

Riverman cover

The Riverman by Aaron Starmer is a unique story for younger teens or older kids that balances on the border of fantasy and reality, the real world and an imagined one.  That’s just one of the reasons that this book reminded me of Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson — there’s the real/imagined world, but also the profound and powerful friendship between a boy and a girl.

The Riverman will keep readers guessing and hoping until the end of the story to find out what happened.  Some but not all of their questions will be answered, but since this is part of a trilogy, it’s setting up for a much larger tale.  The next book in the series, The Whisper, will be coming out in March!

BOOKTALK:

Fiona and Alistair are very unlikely friends.  Sure, they’ve grown up in the same neighborhood and their families used to hang out together when they were kids.  But now they’re different.  They’ve each grown up in different directions and they have different friends.  And then one day Fiona shows up at Alistair’s house and tells him that she wants him to write her biography.  Alistair thinks it’s a little weird, but still, he’s flattered to be asked.  It means she thinks he’s a good writer and he’s creative.

Fiona starts telling Alistair her life story, and that’s when things go from a little weird to VERY weird.  Fiona tells Alistair that she doesn’t spend all of her time in the real world.  That sometimes she visits a magical place called Aquavania, where all she has to do is wish for something and it comes true.  She can wish for the ability to fly, or for the sky to change colors, or for a magical talking animal to be her friend.  And whenever she visits Aquavania, even if she’s spent days or weeks there, when she comes back home it’s like no time passed at all.  But as wonderful as Aquavania is, it’s also dangerous.  Because there’s a creature there called the Riverman that steals the souls of children.  And when he steals their souls in Aquavania, they vanish in real life.

Little by little, Fiona tells her story to Alistair.  And little by little, Alistair comes to the conclusion that obviously she’s crazy … or she’s lying.  But the more he thinks about it, the more he realizes that something really IS wrong, and that Fiona might be in danger.  Whether it’s happening in the real world or in some imaginary place, SOMETHING is threatening Fiona.  And it will be up to Alistair to try to save her.

Booktalk: Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang

Falling Into Place cover

If there is one niche that Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang falls into, it’s probably the “I’m looking for books like If I Stay” category.  Or, in a larger sense, the “I’m looking for books that are about life-or-death choices” category.  This would be a good book to share with large groups of teens (because after all, hasn’t everyone thought about life-or-death choices?) and it would also be a solid choice for book discussion groups.

BOOKTALK:

Liz Emerson thought that her death would be quick and easy.  She thought that she would drive her Mercedes off the road in a spot where she would die instantly and where her family members wouldn’t find her.  But she miscalculated, and now she’s alive — barely.

Liz Emerson was one of the most well-known girls in school, but not always for the right reasons.  She had friends, she had acquaintances, and she had enemies.  Maybe that’s why she tried to kill herself — because she didn’t always treat people the right way.  Maybe it was because she was unhappy, or lonely, or drunk.  But whatever the reason, she failed in her mission.  Now she’s lying in the hospital with tubes and machines keeping her alive.  She didn’t want her family or friends to see her like this, but now she doesn’t have a choice.

It might be too late for Liz, or maybe there’s still time to save her.  Her broken body lying in the hospital bed is pulling at the emotions of all different kinds of people.  Her best friends.  The boy who loved her for years but never told her.  Her classmates who envied her and hated her.  While Liz’s life hangs in the balance, all of those people will have time to wonder: Who is Liz Emerson, really?  And why would she try to kill herself?

Booktalk: How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon

How it Went Down Cover

How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon is a great choice for fans of realistic fiction as well as reluctant readers.  But what really makes it unique is how it’s all about perspective — it’s told from different points of view, and different characters disagree about larger philosophical issues (like what kind of person Tariq was) but also about what each of them saw with their own eyes.  This would be a great choice for a teen book discussion, because it would definitely inspire conversation!  Or, hey, how about as a companion piece to 12 Angry Men?

BTW, my next “in depth” episode isn’t ready yet, so I’ve moved it ahead to next week.  That’s because December is usually when I talk about my favorite children’s and young adult books of the year, and I’ve been so busy with reading YA stuff lately that I need to catch up with some more children’s titles.  So tune in for that next week!

BOOKTALK:

Tariq is a young black teenager who might or might not have been a good person.  He might or might not have wanted to be in a gang.  He might or might not have had a gun in his hand.  But he was shot in front of a bodega in his neighborhood, and now he’s definitely dead.  That’s the one thing that everyone CAN agree on.

Lots of people had their own opinions about Tariq — friends, neighbors, family members, and strangers.  Everyone had their own opinions about what kind of person Tariq was, about whether or not he set the events in motion that led to his own death, and even about what they saw just before and just after he was shot.  The problem is that many of those people, even the ones who were out on the street at the same time and who saw what happened, don’t agree with each other.

Finding the truth about Tariq might be harder than you think.