Sunday, September 30, 2007

Swimming Through A Stormy Sea

It takes strong, skillful strokes to swim through a stormy sea without drowning or veering off-course.

Writing about death--one of the stormiest of seas for readers of any age--is tricky, but it's especially challenging when you're writing a story for children between the ages of six and nine who are just learning to read on their own.

Some adults might say it's dangerous--if not impossible--to introduce such a topic to young children. Yet that's exactly what Michelle Edwards has set out to do in Stinky Stern Forever.

Edwards, the winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Chicken Man, has crafted a sensitive portrait of a young girl's first experience with death, deftly exploring Pa Lia's confused feelings after watching Stinky Stern, one of her classmates--"the enemy of the second grade"--get hit by a van while crossing the street without looking.

Pa Lia and Stinky (and Stinky's mean-spirited antics) are introduced in the first chapter, where Edwards doesn't waste any time showing readers the tension in their relationship.

When Mrs. Fennessey lets the class make snowflakes in an art project at the end of the school day, Pa Lia is eager to begin and help her two best friends, Howie and Calliope.
Pa Lia was an excellent cutter. She cut and folded and sewed shapes all the time with her grandma to make paj ntaub, "story cloths." She finished her snowflake quickly.

"Beautiful," said Calliope.

"Super," said Howie. "Can you help us with ours?"

Pa Lia carefully put her snowflake on her desk. She showed Howie and Calliope how to make a sharp fold. She taught them her grandma's trick of little cuts and turns.
But after leaving her snowflake unguarded on her desk, Pa Lia doesn't see Stinky putting a "big ugly glob of glue right in the middle of her terrific snowflake."
"Snowflake a little sticky, four-eyes? Heh, heh, heh," said Stinky Stern, the enemy of the second grade.
To her credit, Pa Lia doesn't let Stinky ruin her delight in her snowflakes. She quickly cuts and pastes a paper star over the ugly spot of glue.

It's in this opening chapter that Edwards gently and gracefully leads readers toward the major question that will play itself out over the course of this slim volume: How can Pa Lia and her friends mourn a classmate's death, even if that classmate did mean things?

Stinky's death occurs in the second chapter as Pa Lia and her big brother, Tou Gher, leave school for home.
Pa Lia watched Stinky Stern run across the street. He wasn't even looking. Running home to think of more mean things to do.

Pa Lia saw a lady driving by in a white van.

She heard brakes screech. She saw the white van hit Stinky. She leaned close to Tou Gher.
With these words, Edwards plunges her young readers into new and difficult terrain--the emotional turmoil of loss--and shows Pa Lia's response at the scene of the accident and in its aftermath.

What's remarkable is how Edwards conveys Pa Lia's shock, fear, anger, helplessness, and distress in the simplest of words so children might understand what Pa Lia is going through.
"Pa Lia, let's go," said Tou Gher. His voice sounded like it was coming from far away.

Pa Lia couldn't move.

The lady from the white van covered Stinky with a plaid blanket. Mr. Scott, the principal, and Mrs. Fennessey came running out of school. Pa Lia saw Mrs. Fennessey kneel down next to Stinky. She could hear her singing to him.

Pa Lia squeezed her eyes shut. The sound of sirens blared in her ears. She opened her eyes. She saw the paramedics putting Stinky on a stretcher and loading him into the ambulance.

Will Stinky be okay? He is so quiet. So still.

The ambulance sped away with its lights flashing and its sirens blasting.

"I know that boy," said Pa Lia. She was crying. "He's in my class."

Tou Gher hugged Pa Lia. He was wearing a puffy down jacket. He was soft and warm to hug.

"We better go or Mom will worry," he said. "They were both shaking now."

Pa Lia reached for Tou Gher's hand. She held it tightly the whole way home.
Look closely at this passage and you can see just how carefully Edwards (well-aware of the emotional resources of her audience) reveals the multiple layers of emotion that Pa Lia passes through, each layer another stage, much like steps, taking us deeper and deeper into Pa Lia's growing shock at the horror of what she's seen.

That night Pa Lia's friend Calliope calls to tell her Stinky Stern has died, and the next day Pa Lia arrives at school and immediately senses that everything is different.

Following Stinky's death, Pa Lia struggles to make sense of what she has seen and heard. As her classmates share their memories of Stinky--the good and the bad things that he did in his short lifetime--Pa Lia draws pictures in her spelling notebook of some of the things that her classmates say about Stinky.

Frightened and upset, she is too distraught to stand up and share anything with her class until Will, a classmate who shares memories of being tormented by Stinky, says that being dead means Stinky will never come back to school and never go on to third grade. "That is what it means to be dead. It means being gone. Always."

By the end of the story, the collection of memories that the class has shared before lunch, along with Will's words, help Pa Lia finally come to terms with Stinky's death. At last she understands that Stinky Stern is never coming back. Ever.

Here's how Edwards shows Pa Lia struggling with this realization and using her new-found understanding to heal herself and her friends:
Pa Lia rubbed her stomach. She looked at the snowflakes on the wall. Yesterday changed everything.

Pa Lia hugged herself. She shut her eyes. She could hear the sirens blaring again. She could see the ambulance and its flashing lights.

Stinky Stern is dead.


Pa Lia put her pencil down. She closed her notebook. She raised her hand.

Mrs. Fennessey nodded.

Pa Lia took her snowflake off the wall. The glue still felt wet.
Returning to the snowflake, the same one that Stinky had tried to ruin yesterday, Pa Lia confronts her anger at him for his mean actions--anger that she felt when she saw him get hit by the van.

Acknowledging her anger in this way lets her release it and feel as if "a heavy bird had just flown from its nesting spot on her heart."

And with this release, Pa Lia has come full circle--from anger and grief to healing through imagination and memory. Indeed, it's her imagination, and her ability to find comfort in her imagination, that ultimately helps Pa Lia face the tragedy.

If you've ever shied away from telling the truth as you swim through stormy seas in your own work, especially when the truth might cause you or your young readers pain, take a look at Stinky Stern Forever.

The courage the Edwards displays in writing such a book, refusing to shy away from the challenging emotional truths young readers are sure to feel when reading about death for the first time, may help you as you wrestle with your own emotional truths.

For more information about Michelle Edwards and her work, visit her website:

What other reviewers have said about Stinky Stern Forever:


gaelwriter said...

A very tight, emotional setup to the story. "Enemy of the second grade," what a characterization handle. The writer has to be so careful when the story is centered on such a direct, emotional cord, a child's death, and Edwards seems to have succeeded in telling such a poignant story.

Anonymous said...

The book appears to take hold of a sensitive subject and handle it with just the right balance.