by Patrick Ness, based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd, ill. Jim Kay
Late at night, Conor wakes from a nightmare to hear someone calling his name. No, not someone: something. The yew tree from the neighbouring graveyard has transported itself into his yard, twisting its branches into a monstrous shape with arms, legs, and a face. Having been woken by a nightmare more horrifying than a monstrous yew tree, Conor isn’t afraid. He thinks it’s just another dream. But when he wakes up in the morning, the floor of his room is covered in yew leaves. Conor has more going on than midnight visits from a monster–in the waking world, his mother is struggling with cancer and everyone at school is treating him like some innocent victim. The yew tree continues to visit Conor and tell him stories about other times he has been called to enact justice, and Conor starts to hope that the yew tree can help him fix his life. But the monster’s ideas about justice are quite different from Conor’s.
I found this book hard to get into at first, even though the illustrations are really dark and beautiful. I was expecting a straight-up monster story, and the first few pages describe a visit from a monster but it’s not scary. Conor isn’t even afraid, so how was I supposed to be? Then I got to the part about Conor cleaning the house and fixing his own breakfast because his mom is still in bed. I thought it was the typical neglectful parent you find in most horror stories. Once I picked up on the clues that Conor’s mom had cancer, the story shifted for me. Usually kids’ stories about cancer or other illnesses are too after-school special for me to enjoy, with more predictable trajectories than monster stories, but this one is different. This one overlaps the horror element of monster stories with the real life struggles of a child whose parent has cancer. The story is beautifully told, and portrays Conor as he would like to be seen–a flawed hero in a horror story of epic proportions, not the victimized subject of an uncomfortable “issues” book taught in school. Both genres are enriched by this story’s inclusion of the other: the horror aspects of the story embody the dark issues of Conor’s situation, making it easier to empathize with him than if he was merely telling readers about how scared he is about his mom; conversely, the mundane and realistic possibility of Conor losing his mother to cancer makes the horror story more threatening than it would be if simply the fate of the world hung in the balance. While it took me eight or so goes to get to page 20, I found Conor’s complicated dilemma absolutely compelling and read the rest of the book straight through. It is an original, beautiful read with excellent illustrations that bring out both the horror and the sadness of the story.
Recommended for older kids and younger teens who can handle dark books about horror and death. Older teens looking for fanged monsters and blood will be disappointed, but those looking for a sad story will still enjoy it even if they do not care for supernatural horror.
by Mo Willems
City Dog goes into the country and sees a creature sitting on a rock. It is Country Frog, and he is waiting for a friend… but City Dog will do. So they play games all spring. They play games all summer. In fall, they remember all the fun they had. In winter….
I picked this book up, thinking it was going to be classic weird Mo Willems humour, albeit with a different style of illustration. I was wrong! Definitely a sad story, with a bittersweet ending. The watercolor illustrations are perfect, capturing the joys of friendship and the sorrows of mourning. I actually can’t stop myself from leafing through this book every time I see it, so much so that I have memorized the story and can tell it without having the book handy (which is not recommended because the illustrations really do enrich the story). It is a beautiful story with such expressive illustrations. I don’t typically add “issues” books to my own personal collection, but I definitely want a copy of this to call my own.
Good for someone looking for a picture book story about death or loss, without it being didactic or about a specific person in a child’s life. I wouldn’t reserve it for that type of storytelling, though, since I think it can be a nice conversation piece about friendship, disappointment, the seasons, life cycles, things being beyond your control, moving on, and probably a lot more. The death in it is subtle and there is no talk of any sort of spiritual afterlife, so it is acceptable for any belief system.
by Carrie Mac
Phoenix lives in a world where science has advanced enough to be able to give people a second chance at life. Actually, a lot of people get four. Depending on what class you are, you can be brought back to life up to three times, provided your death was an accident. Phoenix has had two accidents already. She is jealous of her superstar athlete brother, Gryphon, who has never died.
Until one night he does. The circumstances of his death are mysterious enough that the governing body has ruled his death a suicide, and are refusing to bring him back. But what really happened? Phoenix is determined to figure out what really happened to her brother.
I had high expectations for this book, because I think Carrie Mac usually skillfully weaves her social conscience into her books, and her stories are usually very creative. I liked the idea of the society Mac painted in this book, but I did not particularly enjoy any of the characters. The writing was even less likable than the extremely shallow characters. Everything was revealed so awkwardly in the beginning, with characters basically saying “I know you’ve told me this already, but let’s hear it one more time for the readers’ sake.” When the mystery starts to unfold, the only action keeping the story going Gryphon’s friends telling Phoenix that she will have to wait for them to tell her. Mac also tries to bring “issues” into the book, but it’s done more didactically than an after-school special from the 80’s. A mulligan in Mac’s career, but hopefully she’ll be up to Droughtlanders-level quality with her next one.
Set in British Columbia, so BC teens may enjoy it for the setting. Fans of dystopian books may enjoy the premise.
by Katherine Marsh
In the New York underworld live all the ghosts of those who have died in NYC. At least, they’re still there until they resolve all their issues and move on. Jack has not moved on. In fact, Jack didn’t even die when he got hit by that car. Even though he’s not dead, he can see dead people. That’s how he meets Euri, a ghost girl about his age who leads him to the underworld. He enlists her help to find his mother, who died in New York years ago. The living are not welcome in the underworld, though, so Jack and Euri must conduct their search while being hunted by a three-headed hellhound who wants to tear Jack to pieces. On top of all of this, Jack can only stay in the underworld for three days before he loses the ability to return to the land of the living.
This book is full of mysteries, like, Just who is this Euri? Why is she helping Jack? Why does Jack share some abilities with dead people? Did he really die in that accident? And why don’t the dates on his mother’s death records match up?
This is a cool mystery for kids who are into Greek mythology. It has a balanced amount of suspense, action, and character development, and is also obviously written by somebody who knows their stuff. A good one for older kids suffering Percy Jackson withdrawal.