Missing Okalee, by Laura Ojeda Melchor, Shadow Mountain, Sept. 7, 2021, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
A girl must deal with the traumatic death of her sister in Laura Ojeda Melchor’s middle-grade debut, Missing Okalee.
When compared to her nearly perfect little sister, Phoebe Paz Petersen feels she doesn’t measure up in her parents’ eyes. Okalee is smart and beloved for her sunny disposition, which makes it hard for Phoebe to stand out in their small town in Montana. But if she can get picked for the coveted solo in the school choir, she’ll stop being a middle-school nobody and finally get her chance to shine.
Despite her sister’s annoying perfection, Phoebe actually loves spending time with Okalee. They have one very special, secret tradition: River Day ― when they hold hands and make their way across the cold, rushing Grayling River, to celebrate the first hint of spring. This year’s River Day crossing, however, goes horribly wrong, and Phoebe’s world is suddenly turned upside down.
Heartbroken and facing life without Okalee, Phoebe is more determined than ever to sing the solo in the school concert as a way of speaking to her sister one last time. But Phoebe’s so traumatized by what happened, she’s lost her beautiful singing voice.
Kat Waters wants the choir solo for herself and is spreading a terrible rumor about what really happened to Okalee on River Day. If Phoebe tells the truth, she believes her family will never forgive her and she may never get to sing her goodbye to Okalee. Even worse, somebody is leaving Phoebe anonymous notes telling her they saw what really happened at the river. —Synopsis provided by Shadow Mountain
Books rarely move me to tears. But this one did. I sat in the parking lot of my daughter’s school with tears running down my face. It had very much the same impact as Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia.
The thoughtful way in which author Laura Ojeda Melchor deals with Okalee’s death and the emotional aftermath is truly exceptional. Melchor’s decision to include on-the-page depiction of Okalee’s death (toward the beginning of the book), it feels right. Readers need that moment to understand Phoebe and her mental state.
Melchor’s characters are well-developed and believable. Young readers will be able to relate to a number of the kids. And parents may see themselves in some of the adults.
Missing Okalee not only deals with death and grief, but overall mental health. Themes of bullying are also present. As a parent, I would either read it before, or in conjunction with, my child so that we could discuss it together.
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