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Laboring through grief

CHILDREN’S BOOKS OF THE YEAR—FICTION | A boy finds life lessons in a mythological Greek hero

Laboring through grief
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SOMETIMES, life is just ­stupid. Like when both ­parents are killed by a stupid drunk driver and your much-older brother gives up his D.C. job to come home to manage you and Beal Brothers Nursery, the stupid family business. And on top of that, said brother decides to enroll you in Cape Cod Academy for Environmental Sciences rather than Turo Middle School with all your friends. And your homeroom teacher is a former Marine, whom you will address as Lt. Col. Hupfer and who clearly will not suffer fools or smart alecks in the classroom.

“Hercules Beal” is also a stupid name for a scrawny 13-year-old, but it gives his teacher an idea for a special project for the fall unit on Greek mythology. During the semester, Hercules must find a way to relate the 12 labors of the mythological Hercules to his own life, then write about what he learned from each one. At first it seems like just another stupid assignment. What Nemean lions and Lernean hydras confront a kid from Turo, Mass.? Plenty, as it turns out in WORLD’s Fiction Children’s Book of the Year, The Labors of Hercules Beal (Clarion 2023) by Gary D. Schmidt.

Hercules has been battling lions and hydras of sorrow for months. The challenges forced on him by the school project—some trivial, others harrowing—will uncover buried griefs but also springs of hope and joy. The discoveries will extend beyond himself: to his brother’s “vampire” girlfriend sharing wise words at the right time; to his cranky neighbor coming through with help when it’s needed; to his former rival transforming into a present friend. Hercules is blessed to live on the most beautiful slice of the planet, reminded of it every morning with the sunrise over the dunes.

As in Pay Attention, Carter Jones (WORLD’s children’s selection for 2020), Gary Schmidt uses an existing framework to work through timeless themes. With Carter Jones it’s the game of cricket; here, Greek mythology. “Several things came together over time,” he says: “Anthon’s Classical Dictionary, the idea that Hercules had to deal with losing his family by working through the labors he is assigned, and the sense that I needed to complete (in my own mind) the question of a young person handling terrible grief.”

Grief has been the theme of many of Schmidt’s novels in the 10 years since his wife’s death. But he handles weighty emotions with a light touch, pulling back the shadows to reveal the essential beauty of Earth and the goodness of life. His use of Hercules’ mythical labors is both entertaining and thoughtful: What challenges in the reader’s life might be comparable? There are no direct references to God, but astute readers should ­recognize Providence when they see it.

Fiction runners-up

Hope in the Valley

Mitali Perkins

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2023)

Pandita Paul, age 13, is still grieving the death of her mother two years earlier. One consolation is the abandoned house next door, where Pandita keeps Ma’s letters and her own poems. Her world is shaken with news that the property is to be razed to make room for low-cost housing. Further, her sisters are encouraging their father to start dating again. Can’t anything stay the same? Set in the 1980s, Pandita’s story shows how opposing views can have merit, how change can both hurt and heal, and how prejudice can be overcome within the framework of a loving family and supportive friends. Ages 10-15

Watership Down: The Graphic Novel

Richard Adams, adapted by James Sturm

(Ten Speed Graphic 2023)

It all began when Fiver, one of the smallest and least significant of the Sandleford Warren, received a vision of impending disaster. At first, the one rabbit who takes him seriously is his brother Hazel, but a few others are persuaded to escape Sandleford and find a new home. The thrilling quest that follows will demand the best from each of them. Richard Adams’ classic story has been adapted, abridged, and animated, but this is the only lavish graphic-novel treatment, drawn by acclaimed Christian illustrator Joe Sutphin. Some of the original’s depth of world-building is lost, but the essential elements of courage, integrity, and wonder remain. Ages 10+

The Many Assassinations of Samir, Seller of Dreams

Daniel Nayeri

(Levine Querido 2023)

A 10-year-old orphan is fleeing for his life from a crowd of angry monks when he stumbles upon a caravan. An oily merchant named Samir bargains the orphan away from the monks, obligating the boy, nicknamed “Monkey,” to serve his rescuer. Samir can talk his way out of a scrape or into a deal, but his gift of gab has also made enemies all along the Silk Road, some of whom have hired assassins to get even. Has Monkey leaped from frying pan to fire? Fantasy elements added to the medieval Asian setting make for a rollicking adventure with subtle Christian symbolism. Ages 10+

Enemies in the Orchard

Dana VanderLugt

(Zonderkidz 2023)

It’s an unsettling time for Claire DeBoer, going on 13: Her brother is in Europe fighting the Germans, her education is on hold, and her workload in the family apple orchard has doubled. Dubious help arrives in the form of German POWs released by the War Department to help with the harvest. Claire wants nothing to do with them, but is drawn hesitantly to Karl, a thoughtful and soft-­spoken 19-year-old. Though technically enemies, they share similar ambitions, love of nature, and genuine Christian faith. Their voices alternate in a verse format that beautifully expresses both pain and joy. Ages 11-16

Please read Part 3 of this issue’s Children’s Books of the Year special section: Seek and find

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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