April 12, 2016

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Guest Post for 9/11: Talking MG and Loss with Kerry O'Malley Cerra

Coping with loss is a difficult issue in middle grade. Critics have asked: Do 8 to 12-year-olds really need another book about losing a beloved pet? A parent? (Check out this Dead Parent Society of Middle Grade page on Goodreads.) But these books can be powerful reflections for young readers, providing guidance and a model for how to survive grief.

In the shadow of yesterday's 9/11 anniversary, I'd like to welcome middle grade author Kerry O'Malley Cerra to Author Amok. Kerry is guest posting, courtesy of the Bookish Babes blog.

The Thing about Loss and Middle School Kids…

By: Kerry O’Malley Cerra- Author of the middle-grade book Just a Drop of Water

When I agreed to write an article focusing on grief and loss in the middle school years, I was excited. Then I sat down to write it and wondered what I’d gotten myself into. Kids—like all people—are complex creatures, but throw in hormones and bewilderment of where they fit in with the world and any parent will confirm that it can be a touchy three to four year span. Suffering a loss during these already emotional years can escalate a pre-teen’s grief exponentially.

I’ve heard the phrase, “Kids are resilient,” more times than I can possibly count. As a former educator, the words were sometimes thrown around the teachers’ lounge each time a student-related tragedy occurred. This isn’t to say those teachers were heartless—quite the contrary. They showed genuine anguish right along with the kids. But in the back of the teachers’ minds, they assumed that in the end the kids would bounce back.

This mentality often freaked me out. What if a kid didn’t bounce back? What if one suicide spawned another? What if the loss of a parent, friend, boyfriend, pet, or home made the black hole in a student’s heart deepen until it completely sucked them in? Sadly, I’ve seen it happen.

Loss, especially when encountered during the fragile pre-teen and teen years, can be all-consuming. At an age where a simple change of schools can be traumatic, a loss of life can feel like an insurmountable obstacle in getting back to living. It’s just too big, too heavy, too much for an adolescent to deal with alone.

You see, the thing about grief, in my experience, is that it has only one cure: hope. When things seem like they cannot possible get any worse, hope carries a person through darkness. The thought that someday—even if it’s far down the road—things will eventually get better can be the difference between life and death. A drug addict enters rehab because they have hope that things can get better. A child in despair over the loss of a pet or over a bad breakup eventually gets back to their daily routine, because there is hope that tomorrow it might not hurt as much. There’s hope that the grief will dissipate over time.

I researched many hours trying to find a middle-grade book in which the main character—despite some sort of loss or experiencing some form of grief—didn’t bounce back by the end. While I did find a few young adult books like this, and I did find some open-ended middle grade books, I didn’t find a single one that left the main character completely broken. Even the legendary, heart-wrenching books Old Yeller and Bridge to Terabithia take a slight turn for the positive at the very end. In the former, Travis eventually adopts one of Old Yeller’s puppies and names it Young Yeller. In the latter, Jesse, though distraught over the loss of his friend Leslie, manages to build a bridge for himself and his sister to cross over to Terabithia safely. Both of these books provide a hopeful ending. It seems that all middle-grade novels do. And, I began to wonder why. At first it seemed too neat. Too unrealistic. I had, after all, seen kids whose happy endings never came.

But it hit me that books for this age group have a job…to give hope. A kid who is experiencing a traumatic event doesn’t need to read a story with a depressing ending. They need to root for the characters’ lives to get better so they, themselves, will have hope for the same outcome. This is probably why I love middle-grade so much. It’s probably why I’ve felt compelled to write for kids this age. With their whole lives still ahead, the world is theirs for the taking, and with hope, they have a chance to make of it what they want.

And on that note, I want to share some of my favorite middle-grade novels that deal with themes of loss.

Loss of a loved one:
Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
A Dog Called Homeless by Sarah Lean
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

Loss of a lifestyle and/or home:
One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
The Red Umbrella by Christina Gonzalez
Chained by Lynne Kelly
Shooting Kabul by NH Senzai

Loss of childhood innocence (forced to see the world in a new way):
Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood
Nature Girl by Jane Kelley

Loss of friends:
Breaking the Ice by Gail Nall
Pack of Dorks by Beth Vrabel

Personal, physical loss:
El Deafo by Cece Bell
The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart

Thank you for a thoughtful post, Kerry. These books are great resources.

Kerry O'Malley Cerra is the author of the award-winning, middle-grade novel Just a Drop of Water
Find it on Indiebound.
Inspired by a deeply personal experience following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, this book has won a Florida State Book Award, the Crystal Kite Award, made the Maine state reading list, and was named to VOYA’s Top Shelf Fiction for Middle Readers’ 2014 list. Though she'll always consider Philly her home, she currently lives in Florida with her husband, kids, and three poorly behaved dogs.

Let's close with the trailer for Kerry's book, Just a Drop of Water.


Irene Latham said...

Thank you, Laura, for sharing this post, and hello Florida-Kerry from Alabama-Irene! Yes yes yes to HOPE. Katherine Paterson in her book of speeches addresses this topic, how kids need to read about loss and how to cope with it BEFORE they experience it in real life. That books offer a safe way to deal with feelings and provide hope and proof that life really can and does go on. And yes, that term "resilience" is often thrown around when we adults are faced with our own powerlessness -- what can we really DO to help kids in pain? We can acknowledge their feelings, we can listen, we can point them to the joy found in leaves changing colors, a smile, petting a dog. All those small moments of hope to help cope with big losses. Thanks for sharing!

Margaret Simon said...

Thanks so much for this post. I have a young student who is only 10 and will mark the one year anniversary of her mother's death this month. I am so torn about how to handle this. She told me about their balloon launch for the mother's birthday a few weeks ago. This prompted me to write a story for her. She read it. But I haven't been able to read her response. She's not a shy child, but she doesn't talk much about this loss. Thanks for helping me to see that hope is the direction to look for. I have not given her books to read that have the loss of a parent. I'm not sure she is ready, but we read aloud "The Crossover" and she had to help me get through it. Resilience, yes. Relationship. Hope.

Kerry O'Malley Cerra said...

Irene and Margaret, thank you both. And Margaret, my heart goes out to your student. You can be her champion for hope, even if she doesn't realize she needs someone--because deep down, she probably does. Hugs to you both.