The Thing about Loss and Middle School Kids…
I initially wrote this as a post for the lovely girls over at Bookish Babes. They are fabulous; go visit them often! I’m reposting here as this topic came up in a discussion recently, and I was reminded of the important responsibility we, as middle-grade writers, have.
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. Despite the losses, though, I hope you’ll find the joy in these gorgeous books. Happy reading.
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 Diaz Gonzalez
Chained by Lynne Kelly
Shooting Kabul by N.H. 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
I am involved in a real life relationship where I see a cycle of hopelessness, and even a fear of hope because with hope comes the possibility of disappointment. But yes, when I first started writing I leaned toward stories with unhappy endings. And I learned quickly that it’s essential to provide hope for my young readers. A few young readers set me straight on that! 😉