“It’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid if the mom died.” BAM! Now that’s grabby, ain’t it? If I were a Hollywood executive I suppose that might be how I’d sell Alan Silberberg’s newest novel about a boy and his issues. It’s not how I’d sell it to an actual kid, though. Alan Silberberg has managed something that I would have deemed near impossible. He’s penned a funny novel that deals with the very real issue of how a family copes when one of its family members passes on and he’s done it with a combo of art and prose. Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze combines interstitial comics with a fun text and a gripping story to come up with a book that manages to be all things for all readers. Humor fans will like it, but so too will those kids who need a little extra meat in their fiction. This is a book that isn’t afraid to get a little sad and serious once in a while. A dead mom book that kids will really gravitate towards.
Once again, Milo has become the new kid at school. Ever since his mom died his dad has been moving both him and his older sister into different homes. Everything from the “Apartment of Endless Stairs” to the appropriately dubbed “Stink Hole (The mystery smell was never found!)”. Milo has found that his dad just sleepwalks through his days, and our hero’s not doing so hot himself. There’s this weird girl at school that keeps bugging him, and then there’s gorgeous Summer Goodman. The kind of gal who would never give a boy like Milo the time of day. However, once he makes a new best friend in a kid called Marshall and finds that the strange girl isn’t that strange after all, Milo discovers that there might be a way to come to terms with his mom being gone, and maybe find a way to remember her too.
Comparisons to Diary of a Wimpy Kid (as I’ve done in the very first sentence of this review) are inevitable. It’s never really all that fair to compare illustrated novels to Kinney’s books, though, since with the exception of Big Nate by Lincoln Peirce most novels are like Milo. They use the illustrations in the book the same way a good musical uses songs. The comics are there to highlight and advance the plot, while offering a bit of color to the narrative. Silberberg is clearly comfortable with this style of writing… and then he takes it a step farther. We’re dealing with some pretty heavy issues in this book, and it would jar with the readers’ senses if you were hearing about a particularly dark point in Milo’s life only to find that emotion alleviated by a sappy cartoon. Yet that’s a trap Silberberg miraculously manages to avoid time and time again. He always knows the best possible time to include a little cartoon or illustrated piece. He even manages to complement serious scenes with a drawing, once in a while. There’s one image of Milo seriously telling his problems to Hilary’s rescued doll collection that is just as serious as any moment of prose.
And the book handles the question of how a kid comes to terms with the death of his mom with great skill. It creeps into the narrative slowly, and then takes it over by the end. Milo’s vast dislike of men who shave their heads is explained when his narrative voice suddenly launches into a talk about how “some” people go bald because they can’t help it. Later he starts thinking about Hillary’s dolls and says, “I picture doll family funerals and the sad dollhouses where now a doll dad has to deal with his doll kids and the doll mom who isn’t coming home.” Silberberg gets so very close to overplaying his hand. He could go smarmy in an instant, but he holds off. The emotions are raw and very real for a children’s book, and somehow he manages to offer comfort without becoming schmaltzy. No mean feat.
Which isn’t to say that the man hasn’t a sense of humor worth noting. Sometimes you turn to the first page of a book and you instantly know that you’re going to want to read it through to the end. That’s how Milo was for me. The first two sentences of the book are, “Summer Goodman never knew what hit her. That’s because it was me, and as soon as I collided with her in the hallway – scattering every one of her perfectly indexed index cards – I disappeared into the mob of kids who’d arrived to help realphabetize her life.” These lines are accompanied by an images of Milo running hell-for-leather down the hall as a now airborne Summer Goodman finds herself unexpectedly horizontal. And while you’re not going to find that the book is the joke-a-page kind of title some kids have been trained to expect, when it’s on it’s on. For example, one of my favorite moments is when Milo complains that his neighbor has carved her pumpkin way too early in the season. By his reasoning, that pumpkin will be decaying squash by the time Halloween finally comes around. This is accompanied with a picture of said pumpkin, thinking to itself “I’m toast”. And honestly, Silberberg’s got a great talent for one-liners. I was particularly fond of “Apparently, my teeth, which no one was paying attention to while my mom was dead, have kind of gone their separate ways and finally it’s time to rein them in before they migrate into someone else’s mouth.”
When you read a book where a new kid with issues moves to town and suddenly the “weird” girl wants to befriend him you have to ask yourself one question: Why does this girl want to be friends with this boy in the first place? Well, in the case of Milo you can make the argument that Hillary is hanging around Milo because she feels sorry for him. I mean the guy lost his mom, after all. That might explain her initial overtures of friendship, anyway. Now I’m reviewing this book off of a galley, so maybe this problem I’ve noticed won’t show up in the final copy. Whatever the case, let’s talk about the character of Hillary. On the cover you can see that she’s pictured with straight black hair. She may even been Asian American. Look inside the book, however, and her hair appears to be as blond as Summer Goodman’s golden locks. Which is it then? Inquiring minds want to know. This is our heroine, after all.
A word on Summer Goodman. It would have been so easy for Silberberg to have written the girl off as a stuck up popular girl. And certainly there are elements of that to her personality when Milo is humiliated by her on Valentine’s Day. But as you read the book you sort of come to realize that Summer’s a great example of how people only want what they want. So when Milo meets Summer again at the end of the story (I won’t ruin how) she sloughs off any fantasies Milo may have harbored about her. She’s not a bad person, just one that’s more interested in herself than in Milo. Is that a crime? Is it even all that unsympathetic?
There’s a great deal of debate out there as to whether or not “bibliotherapy” works. Which is to say, if you encounter a kid with a dead mother, would you hand them Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze? I’m not usually a real bibliotherapy proponent, but Milo may prove to be the exception that proves the rule. I’ve rarely encountered a book that understands grief and grieving as well as this title. One person already wrote me about the book saying, “My husband suffered the same loss that both Milo and Alan [the author:] did, and reading this book was healing for him like nothing I’ve ever seen, even all these years later.” Some books for kids that talk about grief and closure feel manipulative in how they chose to tug at the heartstrings. Milo, in contrast, is an honest, original, and effectively moving title. Silly packaging on the outside. Big heart and emotional core inside.
Notes on the Cover: I was talking with some friends the other day and we got into a discussion of how kid trios in books (Harry Potter, etc.) tend to make the friends the three different parts of the hero his or herself. So one kid tends to be the Id, one the Ego, and one the Superego. That sure is the case with “Milo” so I was very pleased to see that this cover shows all three friends. Hillary is definitely the Superego, Marshall’s the Id, and Milo’s the Ego. It works. You know it does.
On shelves September 14th.
Source: Galley sent for review from publisher.