March 18, 2018

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Saying Goodbye | SLJ Spotlight

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These tender and affecting picture books deal with loss in an honest and age-appropriate way. A BFF moves away, a deceased bird is given a burial service, family members rally around a grieving child, and a magnificent animal succumbs to a terminal illness. While diverse in their subject matter and style, all of the books have a gentle tone, acknowledge the strong emotions being experienced, and offer positive and hopeful ways to cope with them.

redstarBagley, Jessixa. Before I Leave. illus. by Jessixa Bagley. 40p. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter Bks. Feb. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781626720404.Before I Leave By Jessixa Bagley

PreS-Gr 1 –Zelda, a hedgehog, and Aaron, an anteater, are the best of friends. When Zelda finds out her family is moving, she and her pal decide to play “one last time like nothing is changing.” They swing, seesaw, go out in a rowboat, etc. The hedgehog family make their move, and when Zelda unpacks her suitcase, she finds it filled with pictures of all the friends’ favorite outings and numerous notes from Aaron. Zelda thinks, “You seem so far away, and then I unpack—and there you are!” The last page pictures Zelda writing back to Aaron, and readers know that although separated, the friends will stay connected. This is a sweet if slight story, best shared one-on-one. The pen and watercolor illustrations are filled with homey details that children will enjoy, and enhance the poignant tone of the story, particularly the picture of large Aaron trying to pack himself in Zelda’s tiny suitcase. VERDICT A sweet and tender moving story that makes a fine addition to most collections.–Grace Oliff, Ann Blanche Smith School, Hillsdale, NJ

Brown, Margaret Wise. The Dead Bird. illus. by Christian Robinson. 32p. HarperCollins. Mar. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780060289317. BROWN, Margaret Wise. The Dead Bird.

PreS-Gr 2 –Brown’s classic, featuring children who find, bury, and eulogize a deceased bird, was originally illustrated in 1958 by Remy Charlip. That’s a tough act to follow, but Robinson thoughtfully pays homage to his predecessor while bringing something new to the telling. The text is identical, but the book’s orientation shifts from horizontal to vertical and from a limited palette to full color. Charlip’s version alternates between spreads with sentences on blank white backgrounds and wordless scenes, encouraging unhurried reflection. Robinson’s painted and digital compositions (also emphasizing life-affirming green) home in on diverse, expressive faces and pull back to show enchanting woodland scenes; these perspectives similarly help readers engage with and find relief from the emotional content. One girl wears butterfly wings, while a boy sports a fox mask and tail. Along with the dog who licks a sweet, sad face, these details tie the children more closely to the bird’s realm. They also support the spirit of make-believe accompanying the decision to “have a funeral and sing to it the way grown-up people did when someone died.” Brown’s honesty—“That was the way animals got when they had been dead for some time—cold dead and stone still with no heart beating”—has been both lauded and criticized. Robinson provides new access to her rituals and the notion that it is OK, eventually, to return to play—and kite flying. That kite soars up into birdland and references Remy one last time. VERDICT A lovely book befitting its lineage.–Wendy Lukehart, District of Columbia Public Library

Ellis, Sarah. Ben Says Goodbye. illus. by Kim LaFave. 32p. Pajama Pr. Mar. 2016. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781927485798. ELLIS, Sarah. Ben Says Goodbye.

PreS-Gr 1 –While Ben watches the movers pack up his best friend Peter’s home, his family tries to comfort him by telling him how he can talk with Peter online and how Peter can come back for a visit. And his brother tries to distract him by offering him a ball game. But Ben’s reaction is to move away himself. He decides to move under the table and become a cave boy. He grunts when “outsiders” ask questions. He eats with his fingers and does not use his toothbrush. He is a real cave boy…until a familiar smell drifts into the cave and draws him back into the family. And the next day, Ben hears the sound of a moving truck with box after box. Then a scooter rolls out of the truck, signaling the arrival of a new friend. This story is a familiar scenario for children who lose their best friends. The hopeful message is that life can turn from sad to happy once again and the bosom of one’s family can be the best cave in which to find comfort and love when all seems lost. This is a great tale for young children dealing with loss of all kinds. Simple, calming illustrations keep the focus on the story. VERDICT A gentle and age-appropriate reflection on loss.–Mary Hazelton, formerly at Warren & Waldoboro Elementary Schools, ME

redstarLevis, Caron. Ida, Always. illus. by Charles Santoso. 40p. ebook available. S. & S./Atheneum. Feb. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481426404.Ida, Always by Caron Levis

K-Gr 2 –Loosely based on Gus and Ida, the polar bears who lived at the Central Park Zoo until Ida’s death in 2011 and Gus’s death in 2013, this frank yet sensitive work explores loss and affirms the power of friendship. Pals Ida and Gus do everything together, until one day Gus discovers his companion is sick. Zookeeper Sonya explains that though she and the other workers will make sure Ida isn’t in any pain, they can’t cure her and over time, Ida will eventually weaken and die. While the tone is gentle, Levis is honest about the turmoil and anguish of terminal illness: though Gus and Ida make the most of their moments together, there are days where they feel sad and frustrated and times when both bears need to be alone. The quiet, lyrical text is complemented by the soft, evocative visuals. Digitally rendered, the illustrations have a painterly feel and make effective use of color. The settings—sunsets, overcast days, and, when Ida passes away, a rainy morning—reinforce the mood well. Santoso’s design is particularly inspired, with good use of the gutter and perspective. Gus and Ida are cute and have sweetly expressive faces, but they aren’t overly anthropomorphized, nor does Santoso play up the adorable factor to gloss over the painful narrative. Although Gus experiences real loss upon Ida’s death, the book ends on a hopeful note, emphasizing the strength of the friendship and Gus’s memories of Ida. VERDICT A tender and honest portrayal of coming to terms with death.–Mahnaz Dar, School Library Journal

These reviews were published in the School Library Journal January 2016 issue.

Luann Toth About Luann Toth

Luann Toth ( is Managing Editor of SLJ Reviews. A public librarian by training, she has been reviewing books for a quarter of a century and continues to be fascinated by the constantly evolving, ever-expanding world of publishing.