When Josh's mother dies in a phobia-induced car crash, she leaves two questions for her grieving family: how did a snake get into her car and how do you mourn with no faith to guide you? Twelve-year-old Josh is left alone to find the answers. His father is building a time machine. His four-year-old brother's closest friend is a plastic Power Ranger. His psychiatrist offers nothing more than a blank journal and platitudes. Isolated by grief in a home where every day is pajama day, Josh makes death his research ...
When Josh's mother dies in a phobia-induced car crash, she leaves two questions for her grieving family: how did a snake get into her car and how do you mourn with no faith to guide you? Twelve-year-old Josh is left alone to find the answers. His father is building a time machine. His four-year-old brother's closest friend is a plastic Power Ranger. His psychiatrist offers nothing more than a blank journal and platitudes. Isolated by grief in a home where every day is pajama day, Josh makes death his research project. He tests the mourning practices of religions he doesn't believe in. He tries to mend his little brother's shattered heart. He observes, records and waits—for his life to feel normal, for his mother's death to make sense, for his father to come out of the basement. His observations, recorded in a series of journal entries, are funny, smart, insightful—and heartbreaking. His conclusions about the nature of love, loss, grief and the space-time continuum are nothing less than life-changing
Josh's mom dies in a car accident because she freaks when she sees a snake in her car. His father goes off the deep end because of her death and Josh's younger brother, Sammy, walks backward because he did not see his mother's face when she left the house before her fateful drive. If he walks backward he thinks he will see people's faces before they leave. Since their dad spends all non-working hours in the basement of their house building a time machine, Josh is left tending his brother. To make matters worse, Karen, the girl Josh thinks might be his girlfriend because they kissed at the end of the school year, has not answered his letters while she has been at camp. Basically, Josh is feeling overwhelmed and wondering who put the snake in his mom's car. Everybody knew she had an irrational fear of snakes. So somebody must have done it on purpose to murder his mom. Josh suspects his father. Then he suspects a guy his mom worked with. It turns out that Karen put the snake in the car as joke on Josh, because she thought Josh was going with his mother in the car. Josh's dad finally does begin to deal with his own grief and becomes more of a caring father and Sammy starts dealing with his grief. But Josh is not sure he will ever be able to forgive Karen, much less even look at her. The book is nicely written and has good discussions of various religions' way of dealing with death. Reviewer: Sarah Maury Swan
School Library Journal
Gr 5–8—In a journalistic format, 12-year-old Josh writes about coping with his mother's death. His father has completely given up parenting, leaving Josh in charge of his four-year-old brother, Sam, and all of the household duties. Instead, he attempts to build a time machine to go back in time and prevent his wife's death (she had an accident when startled by a snake in her car), and his brother seems intent on channeling his mother's spirit through a toy Power Ranger. Through his own process, Josh delves into the mourning rituals of various faiths and cultures, seeking structure through which to make sense of the world as it exists after his mother. Throughout the tale, even as Josh takes on responsibilities to reinstate the structure and cohesion of his family unit, he is plagued by the mystery of how the snake got into his ophidiophobic mother's car. Throughout his emotional journey, Josh's voice is both natural and believable. Austen is both unsentimental and unapologetic in her employment of precise and elegant prose, and the complicated and often humorous reactions to grieving practices lend themselves to an enjoyable read.—Joanie Terrizzi, New York City Public Schools
When his mother dies in a car crash, 12-year-old Josh realizes she had been the gravity that held family members in place. Now they are planets flying apart from each other through emptiness. His father avoids being a parent and spends his time building a time machine to go back and prevent his wife from getting in the car. Josh's little brother, Sammy, talks to his Power Ranger as if it's his mother, and Josh ponders mourning rituals of different faiths, trying to make sense of a world without his mother. In this impressive debut novel, Josh keeps a journal to chart his feelings and thoughts, allowing readers to follow his journey from sadness to acceptance and the eventual return of cohesion in his family. Given the subject matter, the story is never maudlin, and Josh's voice rings natural and true. An elegantly crafted volume of lasting power. (Fiction. 9-12)
The Bulletin for the Center for Children's Books
Differs from most bereavement stories in both its male narrator and its genuine, if quiet and rueful, humor The result is a book that perceptively gives weight to the small as well as the large ways bereavement can change a family and grief can intermix with the continuation of life.
MSU) Book Notes (Center for Children's/Young Adult Books
"Will resonate with those who have experienced a loss, even one not as traumatic as the loss of a mother, and its gentle portrayal of the stages of grief will strike a chord with those who are starting to think about the big questions of life and death and loss."
"This novel's refusal to sentimentalize loss or to accept quick or predictable solutions in conjunction with its ability to create a realistic and complex protagonist allows for a refreshing perspective on the story of the loss of a parent."
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"Differs from most bereavement stories in both its male narrator and its genuine, if quiet and rueful, humor… The result is a book that perceptively gives weight to the small as well as the large ways bereavement can change a family and grief can intermix with the continuation of life."
"The dead-parent genre is a busy one, but Austen breaks from the pack with this confident and peculiar debut… Austen is more interested in people's alternately funny and haunting reactions to grief… Austen is unsentimental about anger and regret, and that alone makes this a refreshing change of pace."
"Satisfying and realistic. This book would be a good catalyst for discussions about the impact of phobias or dealing with grief. Recommended."
NMRLS Youth Services Book Review
"Josh's wise-beyond-his-years voice will admirably answer the call when young patrons ask for 'sad' books and also provide counsel when young people must deal first-hand with the loss of a loved one."
Library Media Connection
"This will appeal to young people looking for a sad novel, as well as those wanting to relate to another's trauma...A definite success. Recommended."
Canadian Children's Book News
"An original and entertaining take on grief and coping with loss...[Josh] is easy to relate to and sustains this story with his strong, thoughtful and funny voice."
Puget Sound Council for Reviewing Children's Media
"The characters in Walking Backward are human, quirky and likeable…Josh's narrative perspective gives it humor and emotional honesty…An appealing book and a good pick for understanding the loss of a parent."
Washington State YA Book Review
"A charming and sometimes whimsical story."
"Josh's sense of humour, which lightens the somber subject matter of this novel, comes to light throughout the book...While professionals may find this novel useful as bibliotherapy, Walking Backward is much more than a therapeutic tool. With its well-drawn characters and depth of understanding, this work of children's literature should withstand the test of time...Highly Recommended."
Montreal Review of Books
"Austen's protagonist is an endearing blend of smart-aleck and lost boy. The story - recounted in journal entries - deftly tackles such weighty topics as atheism, grief and the ties that bind a family together."
Quill & Quire
"As Josh struggles to understand his family, moments of great tenderness and emotion emerge…Josh comes to accept that dealing with loss is a messy, frustrating, and painful matter that cannot be avoided through mere ritual."
The Globe and Mail
"Austen comments - subtly, non-judgmentally - on the secular, nuclear nature of the contemporary North American family… Her writing cuts straight to the heart. She delivers a wise, rich novel, wonderfully compelling for children and adults alike."
- Sebastien Wen
I'm perplexed as to how something so simple can be such a powerhouse of passion and turmoil. This book isn't fancy but it'll still knock the air right out of you. Reviewer: Sebastien Wen, Teen Reviewer
- Betsy Fraser
Twelve-year-old Josh has been struggling ever since his mother died in a car crash. Josh knows all the steps that a normal family should go through when grieving, as interpreted by every religion. His psychiatrist, Dr. Tierney, is determined to have Josh, his father, and his little brother articulate their feelings in journals. Josh is the only one able to comply, and the journal entries allow readers to chart the family's difficulties and eventual progress. Josh's concerns center around his father's complete withdrawal into their basement to focus himself on building a time machine, his little brother's fixation on a Power Ranger that represents his mother, and his own fears that his mother's death will qualify her for a Darwin award, as her car accident was directly caused by a live snake, the thing that most terrified her. Josh's worry about who might have put the snake in the car and his fears about his mother's phobia and whether his family would be able to remember her make for a very powerful, moving and realistic portrait of grief. Reviewer: Betsy Fraser
Catherine Austen was raised in Kingston, Ontario, the youngest of five children. She studied political science at Queen's University and environmental studies at York University. While procrastinating in the face of exams, she wrote several short stories for literary journals. She worked through the 1990s in Canada's conservation movement, campaigning for federal endangered species legislation. In 2000, Catherine quit office life to raise her children and work as a freelance writer for environmental organizations and First Nations. While procrastinating in the face of deadlines, she began writing children's fiction. Catherine writes from her home in Quebec, which she shares with her husband, Geoff, and their children, Sawyer and Daimon.
Dr. Tierney sent a scribbled note with the journal. It's very important to write every time you have a strong feeling, Josh, and review the journal each week. So when someone makes me laugh or cry, I'm supposed to say, "Hey, man, I've got a strong feeling coming on," and rush off to write it down. It's supposed to be private, but Dad will probably sneak into my room to read it. Then he'll think I'm sad all the time, and that will turn him into a sad person too. Seriously, this thing is dangerous.