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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

by Kate Klise

“I surrendered myself to the unshakable truth that everything had turned terrible, and there was nothing I could do about it.” That’s the realization of sixth-grader Daralynn after her father’s plane crashes, taking his life and that of her brother and sister; Daralynn herself only escaped because her illicit fishing trip had led to her being, literally, grounded. Consolation is slow in coming: the small Missouri community showers Daralynn with dolls, forgetting that it was her little sister, Lilac Rose, who adored them; Daralynn’s flinty mother focuses on practicality, turning her beautician skills into a job prettying up the dead for viewing at the local funeral home and shaping up the living in a new beauty-salon business; Daralynn’s grandmother retreats into childishness, cosseting the dolls that Daralynn rejects. Still, Daralynn’s life grinds along, and she does receive support from a concerned teacher, who offers her a blank notebook in which to write, and from her impetuous aunt Josie, who is five times married, the proprietress of a “retirement home for distinguished gentlemen,” and Daralynn’s mother’s main annoyance. What really penetrates the slow-moving fog of bereavement, however, is the arrival in town of an enterprising newcomer, Clem, who woos Aunt Josie and opens a crematorium that starts to take business from the funeral home, spurring the two businesses into competition. That’s the point at which Daralynn’s already piqued interest in Clem (“It was strangely comforting to meet someone who knew more about death than I did”) expands into a full-blown investigation, documented in letters to her much-missed family members that she writes in her notebook.

Most novels about losing a parent dole out the topic of death carefully and tactfully; Klise, however, audaciously plunks Daralynn right in the thick of the topic—she’s helping her mother style the dear departed, she’s hearing grim tales of sudden ends from Clem, she’s involved in scattering the cremains of one of Josie’s late clients. This constant proximity allows the protagonist—and thus the book—to consider death with unusual openness and frankness, and for it to become a part of Daralynn’s everyday landscape much as her loss itself must. Yet this is no morose tale of mourning: the author keeps her storytelling lively, particular, and humorous, layering on local color and touches of absurdity without taking her story over the top into camp or satire or into the cutely folksy, instead effectively combining Daralynn’s genuine grief and tragic loss with the mundane unfolding of events. And in this case, the events are particularly absorbing, including not only the juicy interpersonal drama of a small town in the 1970s but also a burgeoning mystery.

Klise deserves credit not just for what she does do here but also for what she doesn’t. She doesn’t forget her audience, keeping Daralynn’s age-appropriate and accessibly conveyed views squarely in the foreground. She doesn’t allow Daralynn’s letter-writing to slow down or impede the narrative, instead putting in only the occasional snippet. She doesn’t insist that Daralynn have a big crisis to articulate her grief (it’s actually Daralynn’s mother’s meltdown that’s the key point). She doesn’t allow the mystery about Clem to take over the rest of the story, but she also doesn’t stint on it. In fact, Daralynn’s sleuthing adds some real suspense to the novel, as she uncovers details about Clem’s implausible backstory, receives some creepy implied threats, and eventually finds incontrovertible proof that Clem is simply dumping the bodies he claims to be cremating. For this book, that’s a perfect (if not ultimately successful) crime: it’s shady and menace-worthy without being immediately dangerous, and it also implicitly demonstrates that the living are going to cause you more problems than the dead. And while the book never explicitly makes the link, it’s a nice connection that Daralynn moves her family forward in their acceptance of death by defending the dead as well as the living.

Daralynn herself is spirited, memorable, and utterly authentic, a kid who’d rather go fishing than play with dolls, who understands that the way to make right her mistakenly giving a girl a boy’s haircut is to give herself the same ’do, who adored her father but could have used a little more acknowledgment of his love. While this is an account of a dramatic transitional year in her life, it’s clearly just a piece of her larger lifelong story. Readers will want to follow her through her chronicle of grief, recovery, family closeness, and a little skullduggery on the side.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor



Cover image from Grounded ©2010 by Christopher Silas Neal.  Used by permission of Feiwel and Friends Books.

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This page was last updated on January 1, 2011.