Archive for Death and Grief

Booktalk: Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling by Lucy Frank

Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling cover

I’ve been a fan of Lucy Frank’s writing ever since I read her YA novels I Am an Artichoke and Will You Be My Brussels Sprout? back in my librarian trainee days. Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling is also an excellent book, told in a unique writing style (as a poem-format novel, with poems in each girl’s voice on different sides of the page) and with powerful themes of friendship and overcoming odds.

This would be a great choice for books about death and grief as well as survivor stories (because yes, this story includes a range of possibilities).  Do you know teens who finished The Fault in Our Stars and are looking for more books that will make them contemplate their own mortality?   Share this book with them!


Francesca was sick for a long time, but she didn’t know it.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  She knew that something was wrong, and that some days she felt so sick that she didn’t want to move, or walk, or get out of bed.  But she just figured that she ate the wrong thing … or maybe she was imagining it … or maybe it was real, but if she just ignored it, it would go away.  Well, ignoring it didn’t work.  And one of the most romantic nights of her life quickly turned into one of the most EMBARASSING nights of her life when she got so sick that she wound up in the hospital.  Where she got a roommate named Shannon who’d been sick for a VERY long time.

Shannon tells her what it’s like to live when your body is full of steroids and painkillers.  What it’s like to live with a chronic disease that isn’t fatal … unless, of course, you die from it.  What it’s like to live when everybody you know is either lying to you or feeling sorry for you.

Francesca and Shannon are two girls lying next to each other in a hospital room.  Two girls separated by a thin curtain that hangs between them.  Two girls staring at the ceiling.

Booktalk: The Devil’s Intern by Donna Hosie

The Devils Intern cover

When I first picked up The Devil’s Intern by Donna Hosie, I expected … well, I think I was expecting a story about Hell, and it definitely is that.  The setting of this story is very well thought-out; Hosie put a lot of detail in the logistics of Hell.  For example, the underworld’s business district is in a cave, with departments arranged higher or lower by level of importance.  The devil is at the top, and reality TV stars clean out the ground-floor toilets!

But what I didn’t expect was that the mood of this story would alternate between feeling snarky, sarcastic, strange and sad, and that I’d actually grow to care about these characters.  The mood of the book shifts from the beginning (funny and sarcastic) to the end (affecting and emotional) as Mitchell and his friends escape Hell and revisit the scenes of their own deaths.  This is a one-of-a-kind story about the road trip to end all road trips.


Mitchell is a teenage boy who is going to be a teenage boy forever.  That’s because he’s dead, and he’s been living in hell for the last four years.  Hell is a crazy place that’s getting more and more crowded, and Mitchell’s not looking forward to living here for the rest of … well, for the rest of FOREVER.  The only thing that makes his afterlife bearable is the fact that he has friends here.  They keep him company, they make him laugh, and they make him feel like maybe he’s not going to lose his mind after all.

And then one day Mitchell’s boss shows him a secret invention, a time machine that can be used to solve Hell’s overcrowding problem.  But Mitchell has a better idea — he wants to steal the time machine and go back to the moment of his death.  That way he can save his own life and stop himself from ever winding up in Hell.  But he never imagines that his friends will insist on coming along for the ride, and that each of them will want to revisit their own deaths, too.  They are definitely in for the adventure of a lifetime.

Booktalk: The Fall by Bethany Griffin

The Fall cover

This retelling of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is brought to us by Bethany Griffin, also known as the author of the YA novels Masque of the Red Death and Dance of the Red Death.  Although all of these novels are inspired by Edgar Alan Poe stories, the Red Death novels take Poe’s original story and extrapolate a dystopian future society, while The Fall is more of a traditional retelling.

In Poe’s original story we see the action from the perspective of an outsider who is coming to visit the cursed family, someone who’s coming in at the end of the story as the house is about to collapse.  But The Fall lets you imagine the fear and despair of what it would have been like if you’d spent your entire childhood growing up in that dark, creepy house with a curse hanging over your head.

The tagline on the cover is “Madness is in the very air she breathes,” which will give readers a good sense of the chilling, atmospheric story contained inside.


Madeleine Usher is eighteen years old, and she’s just been been buried alive.  But that’s not where the story begins.

The story started generations ago, when the Usher family was cursed.  Ever since then, all of the Ushers died young, usually after being driven to madness.  Sometimes after trying to leave the house.  The house seemed to have a mind of its own … almost as if it didn’t want them to leave.  Madeleine’s parents sent her twin brother away to try to save him, which left Madeleine even more alone than before.  Now both of her parents are dead, because they couldn’t escape the curse, either.  The only Ushers that are left are Madeleine and her brother, and the curse might die with them.

Madeleine knows the house better than anyone.  She knows its moods and its secrets.  She has peered into its darkest and dustiest corners.  She knows that the house wants to protect her, but she also knows that it might kill her.

Madeleine Usher is eighteen years old, and she’s just been been buried alive.  That’s not where the story begins … but it might be where it ends.

Booktalk: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars cover

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart seems like an ordinary story at first.  It almost seems like a “why am I reading this?” story, because teenagers who spend their summers on a private island are more likely to attract envy than sympathy.  And yet, and yet, and yet …

Cadence is the center of a story that seems ordinary but has an undercurrent of something being wrong but we don’t know exactly what.  She is an unreliable narrator, but it’s not her fault because she doesn’t remember what happened when she had her accident two years earlier.  And since her family won’t tell her what really happened SHE doesn’t know, so WE don’t know …

This is definitely a book to read, discuss, absorb, and remember.


Cadence is upset with her so-called friends.  The four of them spent every summer together on her family’s private island, but then two years ago everything changed when she had an accident and almost drowned.  Then last summer when she was traveling with her father she emailed her friends, but they never answered.  Maybe they forgot about her, or didn’t care after all.

Now this summer she’s back on the island and Johnny, Mirren and Gat are acting like it’s old times again, like their friendship stayed the same.  Now it’s just Cadence’s family acting weird.  They keep acting like she’s fragile, like she can’t be trusted, like every time she gets one of her headaches it means more than it should.  Things haven’t been the same since the accident she had two years ago, but that doesn’t mean that she can’t live a normal life now.  It’s important for Cadence to get back to normal.  It’s important for her to be with her friends again, because when her family starts driving her crazy, her friends are the support system she needs.

And even more important than their support, Cadence realizes that her friends know what happened during her accident, the one she can’t really remember.  She already knows that her family is lying to her, or at least not telling her the whole truth.  But she has to find out what really happened.  She has to make her friends tell her the truth that her family has been keeping from her.  After all, what are friends for?

Booktalk: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

Love Letters to the Dead cover

This book falls into a rare sub-category of fiction — not just a letter-format novel, but an unanswered letter-format novel (see Love You Hate You Miss You by Elizabeth Scott for another great example).

Love Letters to the Dead is an excellent debut novel that will speak to teen readers looking for realistic fiction about life, death, friendship, and family.  You can learn more about this book on Ava Dellaira’s website or the Love Letters to the Dead website.


Laurel’s assignment for English class is to write a letter to a dead person.  She writes a letter to Kurt Cobain because her sister, May, was a fan of his music.  Kurt Cobain is gone now, and so is May, but Laurel still thinks about both of them.

Laurel is supposed to turn in the letter to her teacher, but she doesn’t.  Instead she writes another letter, and another, and another.  Sometimes she writes to Kurt Cobain, or River Phoenix, or Janis Joplin, or Amelia Earhart, or Amy Winehouse, or Judy Garland, or Jim Morrison, or e.e. cummings, or Heath Ledger.  She writes to dead singers, dead actors, dead poets, dead people who weren’t brave enough or dead people who might have been too brave.  She writes to them about their own lives and about her own life.  She writes about starting over at a new school, about trying to make new friends, about falling in love for the first time.  But she also writes about May, about trying to understand May’s life as well as her death, and about learning to live now that May is gone.

Booktalk: Noggin by John Corey Whaley


Full disclosure: except for the fact that I belong to a YA book discussion group composed of like-minded librarians, we’d settled on “boy books” as our monthly theme, and Noggin by John Corey Whaley won the vote for which book we would read, I might never have read this book.  Having said that, I really REALLY enjoyed it.

As I was putting this booktalk together over the last few days, I was feeling a little stuck.  I started thinking, “How am I going to get kids to take me seriously about this book, when as soon as I tell them it’s about a boy who gets his head cut off and cryogenically frozen they’re going to get so distracted that I’ll lose their attention?”  Okay, to be fair, I don’t actually KNOW that’s what would happen since I haven’t shared this book with any classes yet.  But based on years of prior experience (read: horror stories) one part of my mind always anticipates possible distractions.  So that’s why I tacked on the opening sentences to the booktalk, to try to get my audience warmed up to the idea that they were going to hear a story that was a little … “out there.”


Let me start by saying that this story is a little weird, a little unusual, and even a little ridiculous.  So don’t say I didn’t warn you …

Travis Coates was a 16-year-old boy who had no hope of surviving the cancer that was attacking his body.  So he agreed to have his head cut off and frozen, with the hope that one day it could be attached to a new body.  His parents?  His best friend?  His girlfriend?  None of them really BELIEVED that he would ever come back.  Maybe they hoped it, but they didn’t believe it.

This is the story of what happens five years later, when Travis comes back from the dead.  To Travis, it was like no time had passed at all.  He was sixteen years old when he closed his eyes and went to sleep, and he was sixteen years old when he woke up.  It felt like just yesterday.  But five years passed while Travis was sleeping, and he’s going to learn just how much things have changed since he’s been away.

Booktalk: Furious Jones and the Assassin’s Secret by Tim Kehoe

Furious Jones and the Assassin’s Secret represents a couple of firsts for me.  It’s the first time I’m booktalking a title that hasn’t come out yet (but it’s going to be published in April!)  It’s also the first time I’m booktalking a title by an author who’s also an inventor (check out Tim Kehoe’s website to learn more about him, his books, and his inventions).

But let me tell you about why I picked this book out of a pile of advanced reader copies.  It’s because it had a boy protagonist, a cool cover, and an exciting story.  This would be a good choice to share with any older children and younger teens who are looking for a page-turning thriller.


Furious Jones is about to become an orphan.

His mother is already dead; she was shot three times while standing on the sidewalk in a little town called Galena.  Nobody knows who did it or why.  That was seven months ago.

Tonight his father is going to be killed.  Shot three times, just like his mother.  And just like that, Furious Jones will be an orphan.

Furious Jones is a 12-year-old boy.  He doesn’t have a lot of money, or friends, or power.  But he is determined to find out who killed his parents and why.  His first step will be finding some people he can trust, and his second step will be going to the town of Galena to find out why his mother went there, and what really happened to her.  But he needs to do this very carefully, because his parents’ killers are still out there … and he’s just one of the people whose life is in danger.

Tearjerker Books for Teens

As I promised, here’s a recommended list of sad books for teens (and if you get too sad, don’t forget to look at last month’s episode about humor books for teens to find something to cheer you up!)  Here is the list of books I discussed in this episode:

You Know Where to Find Me by Rachel Cohn
Say Goodnight, Gracie by Julie Reece Deaver
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
Looking For Alaska by John Green
Hold Still by Nina LaCour
So Much to Tell You by John Marsden
Cut by Patricia McCormick
WE3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
Missing May by Cynthia Rylant
Love You Hate You Miss You by Elizabeth Scott
Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy by Sonya Sones
Good-Bye Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson
Emako Blue by Brenda Woods

Booktalk: All the Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry

All the Truth Thats in Me cover

All the Truth That’s in Me is primarily a suspense story, but it’s also a historical fiction novel which is unusual because we never know exactly when this story takes place.  The story unfolds in short, poetic chapters told from the point of view of a girl who has survived one ordeal and may have to survive another.  Judith is a fascinating narrator — sometimes unreliable because of the gaps in her memory and understanding, but always empathetic.

Check out Julie Berry’s website for more information about this book and her other titles for young readers.


Four years ago, Judith and her best friend Lottie disappeared.  Soon afterwards, Lottie was found, dead, in a stream.  Two years after that, Judith suddenly came back to town, but she couldn’t tell anyone what had happened to Lottie or what had happened to her.  That’s because the man who had kidnapped her had cut out her tongue to make sure she wouldn’t speak.

He also told her that if she tried to tell anyone what had happened, that he would destroy her town.  She’d spent enough time with him that she’d seen all of his weapons and explosives, and she knew that he could do it.

For two years, Judith has lived as an outcast.  Nobody wants to talk to her or interact with her.  Nobody knows what to say to her.  And she doesn’t know what to say to them without putting them in danger.

But when the town is threatened once again, Judith can think of only one way to save it.  And that means going back to the place where she was held captive for two years.  Going back to the man who kidnapped her and cut out her tongue so that she wouldn’t speak.  And pleading with him to use his weapons and save the town before it’s too late.

Booktalk: The Key to the Golden Firebird by Maureen Johnson

Key to the Golden Firebird cover

The Key to the Golden Firebird was the first of Maureen Johnson’s books that I read, but it definitely wasn’t the last.  I loved this book because it had believable characters and it was about death and grief (and thus a good candidate for the “books that will make me cry” category).  Give this to readers who are looking for realistic fiction, for books about families and friendship, and for books that are rooted in sadness but are ultimately uplifting.


Brooks, May and Palmer are three sisters who are having a great Memorial Day weekend.  They’re going with their family to their annual baseball game at Camden Yards and plotting how to steal Peter Camp’s clothes while he’s in the swimming pool.  But their good times vanish when their father suddenly has a heart attack in the garage and dies right next to his beloved 1967 golden Pontiac Firebird.

People say things that are supposed to make them feel better.  They say, “Your dad’s in a better place now,” like he’s on vacation or something.  Each girl deals with her sorrow in different ways, but soon alcohol, depression, panic attacks and destructive relationships make their lives even worse.

As the weeks turn into months, their lives begin spiraling out of control.  But one thing still holds these girls together: the memories of their father and his Pontiac Firebird that is still sitting, empty, in the garage.  Like the key to the Firebird that hangs in the kitchen, the girls need a key to help get their lives back on track.  They just need to find that key before it’s too late.