Drew, the main character in “Things You Can’t Say,” by Jenn Bishop, is a pretty average kid. He doesn’t have a super power, he’s not on an epic quest, but he has something he loves, which is entertaining little kids at the local library with puppet shows.
He takes well-loved children’s classics and makes them scary by adding things like zombies (Goldilocks) or vampires (Little Red Riding Hood). He loves the sound of little kids’ laughter and squeals.
In those first few pages, when we learn about Drew’s show-stopping storytelling skills and imagine the hilarity in the library, the reader is hooked. At least, this reader was.
But not everything in Drew’s life is giggles and rainbows. His father committed suicide three years ago. Since then, he’s stepped up to help his mom, cooking, cleaning, mowing the lawn. She, too, was flattened by her husband’s suicide.
All the things most kids in most books gripe about, Drew does willingly. He adores his 6-and-a-quarter-year-old brother, Xan. He doesn’t sass his mom. He’s kind of the perfect kid.
It’s not an act. Drew is a happy, easygoing kid. But he also harbors deep, complicated worries stemming from his dad’s suicide.
Those questions may be familiar to readers who have suffered a similar loss. Drew wonders, for example, if his dad was faking all the times he seemed happy, and why he didn’t speak up so he could get help. He feels anger at his absence. And since it’s his dad, Drew also worries if he’ll end up committing suicide when he gets older.
These questions burble in Drew’s brain, popping up in unexpected moments, but he’s still so focused on helping his mom that he doesn’t want to worry or upset her with those questions.
Most people in town who know about Drew’s father’s suicide avoid talking about it at all costs. The one person Drew might talk to, his best friend, Filipe, is acting weird and hanging out with an older kid, an eighth-grader. Drew thinks Filipe doesn’t want to be friends anymore, and Drew doesn’t know what to do about that, either.
When an “old friend” of his mom’s shows up with no warning — riding a motorcycle no less — Drew is suspicious. When he thinks his mom and this friend, “Phil,” are flirting, he is furious.
Meanwhile, a new girl, Audrey, shows up to help in the children’s department. Drew resents her but also sees that she has outstanding computer skills. When he decides he needs to learn more about Phil, Audrey is all in. Their investigation turns up some surprises about both Phil and Drew’s father, but help shows up from an unexpected direction.
I can’t remember another middle-
grade book I’ve read that deals with suicide and its aftermath so forthrightly. Middle-grade books don’t deal with issues on the same level as young-adult books, but there are most definitely topics concerning loss and grief of all kinds that can and must be written about for the middle-grade reader. Jenn Bishop does a great job tackling this complicated and grief-filled topic for her audience.
When someone as accomplished as Gary Schmidt (one of my personal author heroes) recommends a book, as he did for this one, you know you better check it out.
Schmidt writes, “As ‘Things You Can’t Say’ shows the gaping fissures that loss and grief can cause in a kiddo’s life, so too does it show how those same fissures may begin to heal and close. That we are rooting so hard for their closing in Andrew’s life is a measure of how wonderfully real and honest this story is, and of how deep our need is for just the right words.”
Even if your young reader has not lost someone to suicide, Bishop’s characters are so likable that all young readers will love the story on its own merits.