"When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature." --Ernest Hemingway
Characters. Some have a way of needling through to my heart and becoming more than just characters; they become a living person in my mind. These 'characters' are ones I want to know personally, ones I want to talk to, and ones I want to help through difficult times. Perhaps it's Benjamin in Donna Gephart's humorous book Death by Toilet Paper. Maybe it's Kaia in Tom Avery's gut-wrenching My Brother's Shadow.
In My Brother's Shadow, Avery tells the story of Kaia, a year 6 student in a London school. She has felt frozen since the tragic death of her older brother. Kaia's mother is oblivious to her daughter's struggles as she is living within bottles of liquor and seems more of a child than Kaia. Kaia also struggles at school with her classmates. They say she's a freak and ostracize her without trying to sympathize. The only saving grace is a new boy who shows up at school. He does not speak but becomes a friend with whom Kaia can talk and one with whom she can begin to share her feelings.
I empathized with Kaia. I wanted to reach out to her in the pages of this book to let her know I was there. I was listening. I wanted to let her know I was hurting along with her. She was a real person to me.
Sprinkled throughout My Brother's Shadow are Rules for Life, significant stepping stone lessons for Kaia. They also offer opportunities for readers to stop, think, and connect Kaia's lessons with their own lives.
This is a perfect book to recommend to my eighth graders. A very accessible book for these readers, it is one with a mature theme and dark tones. In ways, this story is almost as mysterious, dark and heart-wrenching as A Monster Calls.
For me, the ending is satisfying. Although some readers may prefer to have all their questions answered at the end of a book, I like for questions to remain. I like filling in some of Kaia's story myself. But one thing is certain. In the ending of this book, there is hope. And as Tom Avery writes on his web site, "Hope is crucial in a children’s book."
Pair this book with Wenny Has Wings for a book talk, and young readers will be sure to stay a while with Kaia. The time I spent with her was valuable, and I think my students will feel the same way.
P.S. Reading is like breathing chocolate air!
P.P.S. After writing my thoughts above, I kept going back to this story and uncovering deeper questions and meanings. I handed this book to my ninth grade daughter and after she finished reading, we had a lengthy discussion about the boy Kaia befriends. Wow. This book deserves close reading and thinking and discussion. It very well could be my next read aloud in the classroom.