I was approached by the publisher about The Wolf’s Curse by Jessica Vitalis asking me if I was interested in doing a feature with the author. I jumped at the chance because I was super curious about this book and the features available sounded super interesting. I will be reviewing The Wolf’s Curse, but not until later (a future announcement will give you an idea why), so I opted to do an Author’s Guest Post to find out what Jessica thought about tackling deep themes like death and grief and why it’s important for young readers to be exposed to these subjects.
Without further delay, this is what Jessica had to say.
Tackling Deep Themes Like Death & Grief in Books for Young Readers
There are good ways to introduce children to death and there are not-so-great ways to introduce children to death. I was four when my grandfather died––I remember little of the event, other than being filled with a sense of dread––of wrongness––at the visitation when my aunt kept insisting that I touch him as he rested in his casket. Perhaps this was her way of trying to help me make peace with the fact that the man––the still, unbreathing body––in front of me was the warm, vibrant grandfather I knew and loved. Instead, it terrified me.
My second experience occurred just a few years later, when my uncle––only a few years older than me––died from an accidental gunshot wound. I was in second or third grade, and I’ll never forget entering my grandparents’ house, where the adults were huddled around the table trying to choose flowers and a casket. I was sent down to the rec room in the basement, accessible only via a series of long, dark hallways. When I burst into the dark, cavernous room, it was filled with my cousins lounging on couches and beanbags, their eyes all glued to the television as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” pounded in our ears and zombies rose from their
graves. Too scared to brave the hallways again on my own, I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my ears, my brain already filled with terrifying images.
Now that I’m an adult, I can’t help but wonder how differently these experiences might have unfolded, or impacted me, if I’d had access to book about death and grief––books that helped me experience the reality of a last breath leaving a body, books that helped me process my fear, books that helped me explore the myriad of questions I had about what I was seeing, experiencing, and feeling.
As adults––as parents and caregivers––we want to shield our children from pain. As the mother of two teenage girls, I get that. But I also understand that death and grief are a normal part of the human experience. Even if our children are lucky enough to have escaped death’s grip up to this point in their tender young lives, their luck won’t hold forever. Eventually, they’ll lose someone they love, someone with whole they share a special connection. Or maybe their first run-in with loss will be more distant––an acquaintance or a member of the community. Regardless of the circumstances, we owe it to our children to help equip them for the pain and
grief––and the discomfort and fear––they’ll undoubtedly experience.
Luckily, the children’s book market has changed dramatically since I was a kid––there is now a fantastic selection of books available to young readers that will introduce them to not only loss, but also to addiction, abuse, and poverty––all topics that once upon a time might have seemed to “difficult” for young readers but that we now recognize are all too often a routine part of many young lives. Instead of denying this reality, let’s give children a safe space to process these experiences. Even if they never personally encounter many of the topics discussed in “heavier” books, reading them can only help to build empathy and compassion so that they might be better friends (and humans) when they cross paths with those that do.
For the youngest of children, books such as You’ll Find Me by Amanda Rawson Hill and Big Cat, Little Cat can help. Older readers can explore these topics in realistic stories such as Glitter Gets Everywhere by Yvette Clark, The Line Tender by Kate Allen, and The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart. My own book, The Wolf’s Curse, tackles death head on, but it’s within the context of a fantastical setting and an adventure that will make these topics both accessible and entertaining for even the most reluctant of readers.
Death and grief will never be easy, but through stories we can help prepare kids to for the difficulties they are likely to one day face––to make sure their first encounters aren’t traumatic and hopefully infuse them with the sense that no matter how sad or difficult the circumstances in which they might find themselves, there is always room for hope and healing.
More about Jessica Vitalis
Jessica Vitalis is a Columbia MBA-wielding writer specializing in middle grade literature. An American expat, she now lives in Canada with her husband and two precocious daughters. She loves traveling, sailing, and scuba diving, but when she’s at home she can usually be found recording book talks for Magic in the Middle or changing the batteries in her heated socks. Her debut novel, THE WOLF’S CURSE, will be published fall 2021 by Greenwillow/HarperCollins with a second book to follow.
About The Wolf’s Curse
Title: The Wolf’s Curse
Author: Jessica Vitalis
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Publishing Date: September 21, 2021
Page Length: 336
Age Range: Middle Grade
“The path ahead isn’t easy. It will be filled with darkness and despair, and you will almost certainly regret your decision, just as I regret mine.”
~Narrator, The Wolf’s Curse
Twelve-year-old Gauge’s life has been cursed since the day he witnessed a Great White Wolf steal his grandpapá’s soul, preventing it from reaching the Sea-in-the-Sky and sailing into eternity. When the superstitious residents of Bouge-by-the-Sea accuse the boy of crying wolf, he joins forces with another orphan to prove his innocence. They navigate their shared grief in a journey that ultimately reveals life-changing truths about the wolf––and death. Narrated in a voice reminiscent of The Book Thief and Lemony Snicket, this fast-paced adventure is perfect for fans of literary fiction fantasy such as A Wish in the Dark and The Girl Who Drank the Moon.
Content Warning: Grief and Death