I've read a number of books for children or young adults in recent years about a death in that child's life. Perhaps it was a friend of a young adult, or the loss of a parent or a sibling. Yet one of the few in my memory of the loss of a young friend is Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. More recently, there is also The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin.
Here then, in 2017 comes Matylda Bright & Tender, a debut novel by Holly M. McGhee, that tells another story of a young girl, Sussy, and the terrible loss of her friend, Guy. We may not think that the middle grades need to know of such tragedy, yet in Holly's story also lie the universal feelings that people of all ages feel in their grief.
And who is Matylda? She is a leopard gecko, a new pet that lives with Sussy, but chosen as a living creature both Guy and Sussy will share and love. Matylda with a "y" that's her very own name also receives her own origin story according to Guy, a loving friend with a big imagination. Between him and Sussy, plans are made of how to care for this new and amazing pet, and stories of her previous "warrior" status are created, too.
On what was to be a fun trip for new kinds of food for Matylda, a terrible accident occurs, and Sussy is left, without Guy, without her life's guide. Suddenly, the book's story is no longer about this friendship's hilarious fun, but about Sussy's grief in caring for Matylda the way Guy would have wished. Sussy goes through numerous trials and travels perilous paths to cling to the lizard in the hope that Matylda likes her because Guy is no longer there. There are secrets kept by Sussy, alarming deeds done, but more than anything, Guy is ever present in Sussy's thoughts.
Parents might be shocked at the times their children don't tell their feelings, and while Sussy's parents try to support, when they look at Sussy with the hope that she'll soon "get over it", Sussy knows she must pretend. Time and Sussy's thinking about the kindnesses given her, by Guy "before" and by the pet store owner, other friends, and her parents help her know finally that she's going to be okay.
One of the best things that Holly's story shows is that grief is complicated and everyone is different. There is one late scene in the book where Sussy and her dad share a bit of happiness at good news. Dad says, "Paper tigers. Thank goodness for paper tigers." Sussy asked what that is, and Dad answers: "Things you worry about that end up being harmless." It's a part I'm glad that children who read Matylda might latch onto, might keep for helping them when needed. If you read this with your child, or with students, good conversations will happen, and they will happen because this topic is opened, not hidden as it is so often.
You can find more about Matylda and Holly McGhee at her website here!
The press release can be found here!
Here's the list of other blog posts in this tour. Matylda Bright & Tender was released March 14th. I'm grateful to Candlewick Press for the copy of this book, and the chance to share it.
If you're interested in winning a copy of the book, leave a comment on this post by Sunday, March 26th, and I'll draw names from a hat to find a winner. US addresses only, please.