Her mother had already died of cancer; there's a tear jerker flashback scene where she and her brother watch Bambi and the brother tries to deny that Bambi's mother won't come back. Her brother was killed in a small town school shooting, and she still goes to school with the son of another victim and the cousin of the shooter. Her counselor at school is infinitely patient, although prior to this year seems to have made no progress whatsoever with Caitlin and her social skills; it is only now, in the final months before junior high that she wants Caitlin to learn to make friends and develop empathy. So Caitlin alternates between drowning in misery (every now and again Erskine pours some more on her, from blisters to losing what small friendships she has) and suddenly making her first progress ever in learning to understand others' emotions and feelings.
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Although I admit the book make me tear up sometimes, it was the same tears evoked by cotton commercials and bad Christmas songs -- sentimental, not sentiment. But the simple story line and easy lines to cross might make it easier for kids to read; it's a good problem novel for kids who like that sort of thing -- family death, community tragedy, and even personal disability.
Clearly most of the world disagrees with me; it's won awards and acclaim. But I won't bother mentioning it to my kids.