Grief may not seem like an obvious topic for someone who writes for tweens. And yet, grief sparked the latest story from Joanne Levy.
Sorry For Your Loss, published in October by Orca Books, is set in a family-owned-and-operated funeral home not unlike the United Hebrew Memorial Chapel—which Levy’s father Dan manages in Hamilton, Ont.
The book is dedicated to him, but inspiration for the young-adult novel actually arrived after her mother Marcia Levy passed away, eight years ago.
“It was when I was allowed to see behind the scenes of the funeral home that I felt comforted in knowing how she would be cared for,” says the author. “Most people don’t have access to this—especially kids.
“We often hide what happens to our bodies when they die, and where they go. And I recognized kids are curious and want to know. And they deserve to know.”
For example, the important work of a chevra kadisha (Jewish burial society) is a mystery to many who haven’t been involved in organizing a funeral.
“I wanted to share these traditions in a way that wasn’t scary.”
So, even though Sorry For Your Loss was written with 9- to 12-year-olds in mind, anyone can read it for insights into how to normalize talking about death with children.
The plot concerns a Jewish pre-teen named Evie Walman, who grows up next door to the family business. She loves dusting caskets, polishing pews, and vacuuming the chapel. On funeral days, Evie dresses up to offer condolences while handing out tissues to mourners.
“She wants to help so much,” says Levy of her main character. “But she sort of trips over her own feet all the time.”
Evie thinks she knows everything about loss—until she meets a boy named Oren, who’s lost his own parents in a horrific car crash.
Oren initially refuses to speak and Evie is determined to find a way to help him deal with things.
As their friendship blossoms, the duo confronts bullying, they learn about the art of quilling, explore the depths of grief, and ultimately embrace acceptance and healing.
But it’s also a peek into what happens behind closed doors at any funeral home, a business that the author’s family entered later in life.
“My great-aunt was a member of the group of volunteers that prepares bodies for burial, and she recruited my dad. The manager of my hometown Jewish funeral chapel retired, and my father took over that role.
“I didn’t grow up in the business the way Evie does in the book—but I’ve always been fascinated by the industry.”
Sorry for Your Loss is Levy’s sixth book for young people. Small Medium at Large, her debut novel first published in 2012, focused on specifically Jewish characters but gained wider acclaim.
Her upcoming effort, The Book of Elsie, is about a girl trying to save her synagogue amidst the festivities of Purim.
Levy believes her writing style emphasizes the expression of empathy, while wanting young readers to know “we’re all the same inside, no matter where we pray or where we eat.
“I write for all kids,” she adds. “But I want Jewish kids to be respected in books.”