As I started Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze, my penultimate read in the Cybils 2010 Middle Grade Novel finalist section, I thought I recognized the genre Alan Silberberg was writing in: annoying middle grade boys who draw cartoons. The Wimpy Kid types, ranging from the selfish Roddy and the slightly nicer Nate the Great. My kids love these books, but I find them a bit dull.
But Silberberg surprised me with a sharp turn towards the Newbery type of things -- Milo's mom is dead, and a lot of his self-centered behavior directly stems from his attempts to deal with this loss. His family, all equally shell-shocked, provide little help. Dad tries hard, but is clearly overwhelmed. His sister never emerges as a character. Milo is all alone with his grief.
The mourning seems very realistic, and Milo's general boyishness reinforces and parallels the parts about his grief. His is lucky in his friends; his best friend, the amazingly kind neighbors, even the final connection with the girl of his dreams. I'm still unsettled by the tone shift in the middle, where we suddenly learn where Milo's mom has been -- not divorced but dead. I gave it to my son to read, and he devoured it eagerly because of the illustrations, and then knocked straight into the same issue ("Mama, is Milo's mom DEAD?"). And we both cringed during some of Milo's more spectacular social failures; the seventh grader actually skipped the pages around Valentines Day because they were too painful to read. I admitted to zipping through them with my eyes half-shut. My fifth grader also likes it although he's less influenced by the emotional storms. It's truly an unexpectedly powerful addition to the reluctant-reader shelf.
PS: Congratulations to my sons for getting a new baby sister!