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Remembering Mrs. Rossi
by Amy Hest; illustrated by Heather Maione
Annie Rossi is eight years old, leading a quiet life with her professor father and schoolteacher mother in a "tall brick building on a wide winding street called Riverside Drive" in New York City, when Mrs. Rossi dies suddenly of pneumonia. Now Annie is finding her way through the landscape of loss, helped by her loving father and by the creation of her mother's sixth-grade students: a memory book entitled "Remembering Mrs. Rossi." Hest's four chapters correspond roughly to the seasons, with a focal event in each, beginning with Annie's receiving the memory book in late fall; winter brings a school-closing snow that sends Annie to college with her dad; spring brings the celebration of Annie's father's birthday; and summer brings a vacation by the shore and an unauthorized walk into town with the girl next door.
Death is no stranger to children's literature, and dying often makes for powerful fiction, but that's not the direction this book takes. Remembering Mrs. Rossi isn't a dramatic story of tragedy but the basic everyday-life story it looks like, with its generous-sized print and illustrations of home and classroom activity -- it's just that here mundane reality has taken an unexpected path. The easygoing chapters deftly lace Annie's bereavement into her and her father's daily life, so that Annie's activities have a familiar quotidian focus even when they're touched with longing for her mother. This treatment allows the book to tackle the kinds of loss that sometimes escape examination: the disappearance of family memories, the inability to take family operation for granted, the vanishing of a partner in intimacy. Annie isn't just robbed of a beloved parent but also of the pattern her mother brought to Annie's life (her father "doesn't know the rules," Annie thinks in sad frustration when important customs go unobserved. "Mommy knows!"), and she's upset at the unfairness as well as the loss itself ("Everyone has a mother, and she wants one, too. She wants her very own mother, now!"). As a result, the book conveys loss in terms that all kids can understand regardless of their personal experience, and youngsters with different flavors of parental loss (parents' leaving of the house can have a similar impact to parents' leaving of the world) will recognize the grieving and the undermining of normal existence.
Hest's fluid present-tense narrative is rich with character and feeling; she's tenderly perceptive in her exploration of bereavement at the third-grade level, but she's also skilled at creating a vivid, believable protagonist going through her changed days. The respectful focus on description rather than didacticism allows characters the full spectrum of emotions in response to the situation (the book concludes with "Remembering Mrs. Rossi" itself, containing the believably varied contributions of Mrs. Rossi's students), an approach that's more reassuring than an overt emphasis on adjustment. This treatment means that Annie's bereavement isn't presented as a novelistically convenient smooth progression but a more realistically complicated experience. She enjoys new experiences and old habits with her father or an adventure with her summer-cottage neighbor, but she's still hit by her mother's absence at unpredictable as well as predictable times. She's comforted by her dad, the memory book, and her own unique memories of her mother, but there are days where it's still a struggle to make it through without her mother's loving presence.
Ultimately, Annie is a credible kid who'd be fine literary company in any circumstance; readers will therefore particularly empathize with her in the face of her tough year, and she'll speak for many kids undergoing their own family upheavals. Black-and-white line-and-wash art has the same friendly accessibility as the text.
Deborah Stevenson, Editor
Cover image by Heather Maione from Remembering Mrs. Rossi ©2007. Used by permission of Candlewick Press.
This page was last updated on March 1, 2007.