AFTER/MATH by Emily Barth Isler

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Ever since her little brother died of a heart defect, there has been a line dividing Lucy’s family. Her parents are broken, grieving in different ways but both unable to talk about Theo. In fact, even their house and the town where they live is too painful for them to handle, so without even asking for Lucy’s input, they move to another state and into the former home of a dead girl.

Everyone in Lucy’s new town has lost someone. The school shooting that took place four years ago claimed the lives of many children, all of them in Lucy’s grade, one of them who used to live in Lucy’s new bedroom. Even though Lucy has experienced a loss of her own, it seems impossible to befriend these kids, whose lives are defined by a shared trauma. But when Lucy happens to sit at a lunch table with the the shooter’s younger sister, a social pariah because of her brother’s actions, she really connects with someone for the first time since Theo’s death. And when she and her new friend join an after school drama club run by their math teacher, Lucy begins to work through her feelings about Theo, her relationship with her parents, and the infinite journey of grief and love.

As a middle grade book about a school shooting, this book will be challenged (as many great books are) by adults who feel the content is inappropriate for upper-elementary and middle school students. As with any book about trauma and violence, there will be individual children who would find it unduly upsetting and won’t be ready for it. But I believe AFTER/MATH is developmentally appropriate and relevant for readers in grades 5-8–children who, like the book’s protagonist, have been getting glimpses of school shootings and gun violence in the news or through overhearing adult conversations. Although the characters bluntly share deeply disturbing (but realistic) memories of the shooting, because the novel is set years later and told through the eyes of a girl who experienced a different, less violent loss, the focus throughout the novel is not on violence but on grief, healing, and community. I would recommend this novel to mature middle grade readers, especially those in middle school.

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