Conditional Recommendation: With the help of a feisty friend and a caged tiger, a 12-year-old boy learns how to process his bottled-up grief.
Awards: Charlie May Simon Children’s Book Award Nominee (2004), National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature (2001)
Kate DiCamillo knows how to deliver thoughtful stories that pull on your heartstrings. In this story DiCamillo again makes grief a major theme; young Rob suppresses his emotions over the death of his mother. The story is gritty—the boy and his dad live and work at a crummy motel and the characters are rough around the edges and the kids at school bully Rob—but I didn’t think it was too heavy and grief is expertly handled and includes friendship and hope.
Walking through the misty Florida woods one morning, twelve-year-old Rob Horton is stunned to encounter a tiger—a real-life, very large tiger—pacing back and forth in a cage. What’s more, on the same extraordinary day, he meets Sistine Bailey, a girl who shows her feelings as readily as Rob hides his. As they learn to trust each other, and ultimately, to be friends, Rob and Sistine prove that some things—like memories, and heartaches, and tigers—can’t be locked up forever.
Grief – Younger readers may miss the elegance of the metaphors, so this would be a good book to read aloud and discuss together. Especially if your young reader needs to learn how to process loss. Rob thinks of his feelings as shut up in a suitcase and one way to keep the suitcase shut is to stay distracted. On the other hand, Sistine Bailey lets her emotions and grief spill out unchecked. Rob is a quiet griever, while Sistine is an angry one.
Friendship – Rob and Sistine are a pair of opposites but, as some opposites do, they balance each other out and are each what the other needs to be better. Their friendship isn’t smooth and starts with dislike but they stick to each other anyway.
In this life, we will have grief. We will deal with people who are unkind. We may experience unfortunate and difficult circumstances. Learning to manage our emotions and have emotional intelligence will serve us no matter our age. Books like this can help introduce kids to ways of thinking, ways to process, and ways to live despite difficult people or situations.
I love Rob. He is kind and respectful and all bottled-up inside. You can’t help but like him.
And ending of hope, of releasing your grief, and of leaning into those who care about you.
The guy who owns the motel where Rob and his dad live is decidedly creepy and at one point he convinces Rob to get in his truck to show him a surprise. Sounds like an invitation to be kidnapped or murdered but the guy just shows Rob his caged tiger. Iffy scenario!
Rob gets bullied on the bus and at school. He doesn’t engage and takes it quietly. Sistine also gets bullied but she lashes out, kicking and punching.
The tiger is shot by Rob’s dad—we don’t see it, but Rob and Sistine come upon the dead tiger and Rob notices the bullet hole.
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