*THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS!*
At the Children’s Literacy Foundation (CLiF), we write and talk a lot about social emotional learning through books, the importance of read alouds, and the function of literature to inspire empathy. Take a moment to step back and think of those books that made a mark on you. Remember when you were a young person and you read books that just wrecked you or made you think deeply? For me, as a child, it was Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson (who is an emeritus CLiF presenter!). More recently, I added a new book to my list: The Vanderbeekers Ever After. It’s one of those that unexpectedly shakes you awake to the power of a really good book.
My daughter and I have read each volume of the Vanderbeekers series together, and we eagerly anticipated the September 2023 release of the seventh book about an endearing family of seven living in Harlem, NY. The author, Karina Yan Glaser, focuses on themes of family, community, and friendship, and captivates the reader with her cast of siblings who work together to solve problems and help others, while also occasionally getting into trouble.
In this final book of the series, the youngest sibling, Laney Vanderbeeker, is diagnosed with leukemia and hospitalized in the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Her treatment is chronicled in a very sensitive, factual way and opened doors for us into the world of kids battling cancer. In the book, we meet other brave children who are patients, humorous nurses, caring doctors, beloved therapy dogs, and scared family members.
Laney befriends Edward, another child receiving cancer treatment while at Sloan Kettering, and they become fast friends who love to play chess together. But it becomes apparent that he is sicker than Laney, and as the chapters progress, so does his illness. As we read aloud together, I became very worried about Edward. At one point I said to my daughter, “I just don’t have a good feeling. He doesn’t seem to be getting better.”
Sadly, he doesn’t get better. He starts to fade and Laney’s awareness of his impending death alongside her positive response to treatment marks a pivotal moment in the book—sometimes as we move forward in life, someone else out there is grappling with grief. When Edward enters hospice and leaves the hospital to be home with his family, I share with full honesty that not since Charlotte’s Web has there been a book that I read with tears rolling down my cheeks while my daughter sobbed into her pillow.
I stand in awe that a children’s book can remind us of this complexity: that the world is both beautiful and tragic all at the same time. That we must say goodbye to people we love; that people can be suffering and experiencing pain but still capable of kindness and generosity; that cancer is unfair and cruel; and that children can hold these truths.
I reflected with my daughter how remarkable it is that a fictional book—literally just words on a page—could prompt such a strong emotional reaction. Granted, we are both empaths with very sensitive souls, but I think that’s the mark of an excellent writer. Isn’t it incredible that Yan Glaser can inspire us to care through her words? That she has created this world that feels so real, so true, and so thoughtful that we feel the pain of this fictional character’s passing?
Books and stories have lasting emotional power to move us throughout our lives and open doors to intensely personal journeys. At CLiF, our goal is to inspire each young reader to discover the books that, for them, leave their mark long after the final page. This kind of impact is hard to describe but you know it when you feel it. As for me, I know I’ll miss the Vanderbeeker family.