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Two compelling and new juvenile novels about living with loss: One has real-life grit and magical elements for a girl caught in the hard-to-imagine challenge of Hurricane Katrina where not everyone survives; the other is the very realistic and insightful account of the first year of life for a middle-school girl following the death of her mother to cancer. Two different tales of survival and both are good reads.

Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes, Little, Brown and Company, 2010.

Lanesha has known loss and she's about to know some more. Her mother died when she was born and neither side of biological relatives keeps contact with her. The family that she knows is an elderly woman called "Mama Ya-Ya" who has been midwife to many a birth in her long life including Lanesha's birth. Mama Ya-Ya has "the sight"-a gift for seeing beyond the surface of things which means she sees ghosts and can sometimes anticipate what the future is bringing. Lanesha has the sight, too, which is a mixed blessing. At age twelve, it makes her automatically different and separate from her peers, but it also connects her in a deeper way to Mama Ya-Ya and to her own mother whose silent ghost she sees frequently. Trouble is coming with the predictions of Hurricane Katrina coming toward their home in New Orleans, but not even Mama Ya-Ya can fathom the what the storm will bring. Lanesha will be tested as never before and much will be lost. Much will also be found as Lanesha will find unexpected friendship, strength and connections to family in a dramatic, but not overly so, struggle for survival.  

The story is told in Lanesha's voice and along with the compelling and down-to-earth narrative, it is a bonus to have a book where the protagonist is a contemporary African-American girl. The author does nicely mixing themes of family, adolescence and loss in the context of storm of what had been unimaginable magnitude. The fifth-grade class to which this was recently read was engaged from start to finish.

If Only by Carole Geithner, Scholastic Press, 2012.

What would happen if someone was very experienced with adolescents, who had experienced the death of a parent, could remember what it felt like to be in the 8th grade and had an ear and feel for contemporary young teens, and was a gifted storyteller? If all those factors come together, you would have Carole Geithner's extraordinary debut novel, If Only.

As if 8th grade is not challenging enough, Corinna begins the school year reeling from her mother's death from cancer over the summer. Corinna narrates the story of this first year in a new world without her mother's physical presence to comfort, guide, listen and keep the family running smoothly. Challenges are many as Corinna deals with well-meaning friends who don't "get it," a father who tries hard but is struggling himself, and the typical dramas of early adolescence. Corinna is a keen observer of her middle school social world and the clumsy reactions of friends and relatives to the death of her mother. Friendships change as her best friend has difficulty understanding while she finds a new friend who has experienced the death of her father. Adult responses vary from sensitive to clueless which rings true to the testimony of many grieving teens. Corinna's school counselor leads a time-limited support group during the lunch hour which Corinna finds helpful and illuminating as she hears the experiences of others and sees some of their commonalities and differences. Along the way Corinna discovers her mother's journal which exposes some important and distressing family secrets and shows her mother's struggles with expressing her concerns to her own family.

Geithner is patient and doesn't go for the easy answers and neat resolutions. The story ends as a new school year begins with a hard-earned realization of the consequences of her mother's death along with a sense of hope and resilience. Thanks to Carole Geithner for skillfully telling such a true story.


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