I noticed it right away as I began talking about my latest book with friends and family. My sister-in-law’s face pinched when she asked what Things You Can’t Say was about and I uttered the word “suicide” in my description. “Why would you want to write about that in a book for kids?” I understood her knee-jerk reaction. Her children are still toddlers and there’s an instinct to protect them from every bad thing in the world. But by the time kids grow older, by the time they’re in the latter years of elementary school, there’s ever so much they’re aware of. Whether it’s something going on in their own life, something happening to a friend, or some story they’ve overheard on the evening news. They inhabit the same world we do, where unfortunate things happen. Every day. Currently, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among individuals aged ten and thirty-four. According to a 2017 CDC report, suicide annually claims the live of over forty-seven thousand Americans. Suicide touches the lives of many, many children, but there are few books for children that directly deal with it. As far as I knew when I first began drafting Things You Can’t Say, the only middle grade novel that addressed suicide was Esther Ehrlich’s Nest. What I learned as I revised Things You Can’t Say, though, is that Nest is not the only middle grade novel that deals with suicide. There are others. People just weren’t talking about them, not the way they talked about other books, at least. Forever a librarian and consumer of children’s books, I sought them out, diving deep into middle grade history. I read Belle Prater’s Boy by Ruth White, a Newbery Honor title from 1997, Nora Raleigh Baskin’s What Every Girl (Except Me) Knows, published in 2001, and Erica Perl’s more recent All Three Stooges, published in 2018. As different as these books are from each other, I had a feeling there was something they had in common: that they gave gatekeepers—teachers, librarians, parents—pause in handing them to young readers. That they might have been saved on a special shelf, only to be handed to the kids going through situations like that. As if they were the only ones who could benefit from reading these titles. But the truth is, we can all benefit from reading these stories. And putting them on a separate shelf, removed from the rest, only tells the kids experiencing dealing with that kind of loss that there’s something wrong, something not normal, about their situation. As Mr. Rogers said best, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” We need to talk about these books and not be afraid to share them with young readers.
In Things You Can’t Say, Drew is a sensitive twelve-year-old boy who’s had to grow up faster than his peers in the wake of his father’s suicide three years ago. As the title suggests, there’s a lot Drew can’t articulate. Not to his mom, who herself has struggled in the aftermath. And not to his best friend across the street, Filipe, who has “normal” family. Never mind the other kids at school. About to enter seventh grade now, Drew has new concerns. Things that didn’t click for him as a nine-year-old, when his life was upended. Is this something he can inherit, whatever happened to his dad? When Phil, an old friend of the family, passes through Drew’s small Rhode Island town on a cross-country motorcycle trip and stays with Drew’s family for a couple nights, the experience unleashes even more questions. Drew reads into Phil’s attempts to connect with him, not yet knowing their true meaning, and convinces himself that perhaps Phil could be his “real” father. With the help of Audrey, with whom Drew volunteers in the children’s room at the public library, he is set on determining Phil’s true identity. While I imagine that readers who’ve been in Drew’s shoes might relate to this desperate yearning, this opportunity to undo the one thing you can’t, for many more I hope Drew’s story will foster understanding and compassion. As the statistics show, there are many children who have lost loved ones to suicide and who are grappling with a very specific kind of grief. They not only deserve to see their stories played out in age-appropriate literature, they deserve to hear them talked about, shared, discussed. There’s so much stigma, still, to suicide. One way to help break the stigma is to share these kinds of stories.
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Jenn Bishop is the author of the middle grade novels 14 Hollow Road; The Distance to Home, which was a Junior Library Guild selection and a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book; and Things You Can’t Say. She grew up in New England, where she fell in love with the ocean, Del’s frozen lemonade, and the Boston Red Sox before escaping to college at the University of Chicago.
After working as a teen and children’s librarian, she received her MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Jenn currently calls Cincinnati, Ohio, home.
To learn more about suicide prevention, please visit: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline suicidepreventionlifeline.org A national network of crisis centers that offers free emotional support 24/7, including specific resources for kids. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) Crisis Text Line A free 24/7 confidential text message service for people in crisis.
Text HOME to 741741 in the United States.