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Find comfort through understanding in these sensitively told stories that feature characters living with dementia.
At first glance, Alzheimer’s disease—or, more broadly, dementia—may seem like an unlikely topic for children’s fiction, but according to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s or another related dementia, a number that is expected to rise to 14 million by 2050. It is the sixth leading cause of all deaths in the U.S. (as of 2018), and African Americans, Hispanics, and women of all races are more likely to develop the disease.
With no reliable treatments to prevent, slow, or cure Alzheimer’s, it can be a sensitive topic for children. Books for very young children tend to approach senility as a celebration of the good times already shared or as an appreciation of the elder’s facilities that still remain. Books for tweens, on the other hand, are much more direct, often emphasizing the bond shared between kids and their elderly relatives (both of whom lack decision-making agency in their lives) or, particularly in the case of early-onset Alzheimer’s, a refusal to accept the diagnosis of a loved one.
Many of today’s youth already know someone suffering from dementia or one of the 16 million unpaid caregivers of these patients. Listed below are a number of excellent, recently published titles that will help children and young adults better understand and empathize with dementia victims.
Dad’s Camera. By Ross Watkins. Illus. by Liz Anelli. 2018. Candlewick, $16.99 (9781536201383). K–Gr. 3.
After Dad is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, he purchases a film camera and photographs items he doesn’t want to forget. After his death, his family discovers one last photo—of their family—a gift to remember him by. Watkins’ simple prose and Anelli’s mixed-media artwork offer young readers a look at the confusion surrounding this disease, as well as the tender surprises that can result.
The Day Abuelo Got Lost. By Diane de Anda. Illus. by Alleanna Harris. 2019. Albert Whitman, $16.99 (9780807514924). PreS–Gr. 2.
Abuelo, who has always lived with Luis and his parents, shares a special bond with his grandson. When Abuelo finds he can no longer build models, make quesadillas, or remember Luis’ name, they find work-arounds, but when he goes missing from home, everyone realizes that they must find proper care for him. Straightforward, direct text and warm illustrations reassure young readers that even when memories are lost, love remains.
Finding Grandma’s Memories. By Jiyeon Pak. Illus. by the author. 2019. Knopf, $17.99 (9780525581079). PreS–Gr. 2.
A young girl has always loved teatime with Grandma, but as the older woman ages, the ritual changes. She forgets to turn off the water, puts her glasses in the refrigerator, and sometimes forgets her granddaughter’s name. Still, the girl finds ways to help Grandma, enabling them to maintain their special relationship. Bright illustrations keep the story upbeat and reinforce the gentle message of spending quality time with aging loved ones.
Forget Me Not. By Nancy Van Laan. Illus. by Stephanie Graegin. 2014. Random/Schwartz & Wade, o.p. K–Gr. 3.
Young Julia can remember when Grandma always smelled of cinnamon and lilac when they cuddled. But now Grandma forgets names and where she parked and wanders outside in a snowstorm. The family must find a new home for her, one “that will give her the special care she needs.” Soft pencil-and-ink illustrations complement this sensitive portrayal of a heart-wrenching situation, made more bearable by Julia’s constant love for her grandmother.
My Singing Nana. By Pat Mora. Illus. by Alyssa Bermudez. 2019. Magination, $16.99 (9781433830211). PreS–Gr. 2.
Billy and Nana enjoy spending time together, especially baking cherry empanadas and putting on shows for family and friends, but Nana is having trouble remembering, younger sister Becky develops a sore throat, and Billy worries their latest presentation will be a flop. However, he and Nana are “always amigos,” and together they save the act. Appended with suggestions for families dealing with dementia, plus a recipe for cherry empanadas.
Newspaper Hats. By Phil Cummings. Illus. by Owen Swan. 2016. Charlesbridge, $16.95 (9781580897839). K–Gr. 3.
Young Georgie visits her grandfather in a nursing home, where she asks, “Do you remember me?” Grandpa deflects by recounting memories sparked by photos on his dresser; then Georgie finds a picture of herself wearing a newspaper hat, and together the two fold hats for the home’s residents. Told from Georgie’s perspective and softly illustrated with colored pencil and watercolor, this story gently reminds that loving relationships are possible even as memories fade.
The Remember Balloons. By Jessie Oliveros. Illus. by Dana Wulfekotte. 2018. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 (9781481489157). PreS–Gr. 2.
Young James and his family carry their memories in colorful balloons: James has a few, his parents more, and Grandpa the most of all. Then Grandpa begins losing his balloons. James is alarmed until he realizes that listening to Grandpa’s stories has transferred these memories to him; now he can share them with Grandpa. Illustrated in black and white, with color reserved for the balloons, this gentle story will be meaningful to families in this situation.
What a Beautiful Morning. By Arthur A. Levine. Illus. by Katie Kath. 2016. Running Press, $16.95 (9780762459063). K–Gr. 2.
Noah has always enjoyed spending time with Grandpa, but this year is different. Grandpa can’t remember how to cut Noah’s French toast, and when he wakes up from a nap, he doesn’t recognize the boy. Grandma explains about memory loss and refocuses Noah on appreciating what Grandpa “still has . . . not on what he’s lost.” Kath’s watercolor-and-ink illustrations morph from full color to grays as the dementia progresses.
Give and Take. By Elly Swartz. 2019. Farrar, $16.99 (9780374308216). Gr. 4–7.
Following the death of her beloved grandmother from dementia, 12-year-old Maggie works hard to hold onto memories—especially of Nana—but her memento collection soon turns into a hoard that fills her locker, closet, and the space beneath her bed. This sensitive portrayal of loss reminds readers that debilitating illnesses such as Alzheimer’s can result in unforeseen consequences for other family members as well.
The Half-True Lies of Cricket Cohen. By Catherine Lloyd Burns. 2017. Farrar, $18.40 (9780606410960). Gr. 4–7.
Eleven-year-old New Yorker Cricket Cohen, who feels ignored by her intense fundraiser parents, decides to run away with her grandmother, Dodo. At first, all is fun, but when they are picked up by the police for shoplifting, Cricket must admit that Dodo has a serious memory problem. This early-stage Alzheimer’s depiction is buoyed by Cricket’s ability to gently steer Dodo back to reality without embarrassing her.
Hour of the Bees. By Lindsay Eagar. 2016. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763679224). Gr. 5–8.
Twelve-year-old Carolina spends the summer at her grandfather’s remote New Mexico ranch as her parents prepare to sell the property so that the ailing Serge can be moved to a dementia facility. Carol gets to know Grandpa Serge through his fantastic tales that put her in touch with her Mexican heritage, which she has always tried to hide. A poignant reminder to “squeeze the juice out of every day.”
Just like Jackie. By Lindsey Stoddard. 2018. Harper, $16.99 (9780062652911). Gr. 4–7.
Eleven-year-old biracial Robbie Hart, whose short temper often gets her into trouble at school, worries that her grandfather’s increasing forgetfulness will be noticed and that the authorities will take her away from the only family she has. In this heartfelt story, Stoddard sensitively explores Alzheimer’s, mental health, and the definition of family.
The Lotterys Plus One. By Emma Donoghue. Illus. by Caroline Hadilaksono. 2017. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, $17.99 (9780545925815). Gr. 4–7.
Nine-year-old Sumac Lottery narrates this tale of her diverse family members (four parents, seven siblings, and one grizzled grandparent suffering from dementia), who all live together in a sprawling Toronto house. Despite grandpa Grumps’ emphatic disapproval of this untraditional family, they treat him with kindness and concern for his needs, eventually arriving at a satisfying resolution. Equal parts chaotic, clever, funny, and moving.
The Magpie’s Library. By Kate Blair. 2019. Cormorant/DCB, $13.95 (9781770865549). Gr. 4–7.
Thirteen-year-old Silva and her family arrive on Hayling Island to check on Mum’s father, who is suffering from dementia and a serious infection. After Grandpa asks to be allowed to die (thus sparing everyone the ravages of Alzheimer’s), Silva flees to the public library, where a magpie lures her into a secret room to experience stories firsthand. An empowering look at successfully tackling the curveballs that life throws at you.
The Memory Keeper. By Jennifer Camiccia. Illus. by Jenna Stempel-Lobell. 2019. Aladdin, $17.99 (9781534439559). Gr. 4–7.
Camiccia’s novel explores several kinds of memory: 13-year-old Lulu can recall everything she has ever experienced, Gram is increasingly forgetful, and Mom and Dad try to repress the memories of Lulu’s now-deceased younger sister. Lulu’s search for a past trauma that might explain (and yield a cure for) Gram’s memory loss reveals two different passports, a journal written in Russian, and a mysterious acquaintance—but ultimately no change in Gram’s prognosis.
The Memory Wall. By Lev AC Rosen. 2016. Knopf, $16.99 (9781101933237). Gr. 4–6.
Upset that his mother has chosen to move to a care home because she suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s, biracial seventh-grader Nick tries to lose himself in the latest installment of an online game, Wellhall, a complex fantasy with situations that seem to parallel his real life. Rosen’s depiction of this disease’s symptoms and Nick’s difficulty in accepting the diagnosis make for a thought-provoking read.
Merci Suárez Changes Gears. By Meg Medina. 2018. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763690496). Gr. 4–7.
Sixth-grader Merci learns to navigate between the worlds of her posh private school and her sometimes-rambunctious extended Cuban American family, who live in adjoining houses. Of special concern is her beloved abuelo Lolo, who begins wandering off, forgetting things, and losing his temper. Merci finds she must protect him from embarrassment while also doing what will be best for him.
Saturdays with Hitchcock. By Ellen Wittlinger. 2017. Charlesbridge, $16.99 (9781580897754). Gr. 5–7.
Sixth-grader movie buff Maisie confronts a host of issues: her best friend comes out as gay, admitting that the object of his crush is a boy who likes Maisie; Maisie’s uncle, injured on a movie set, moves in with her family; and Maisie’s grandmother shows signs of early dementia and must move in with the family as well. Despite the heavy subject matter, Wittlinger successfully guides her characters to upbeat, yet realistic, solutions.
The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones. By Wendelin Van Draanen. 2016. Knopf, $16.99 (9781101940402). Gr. 4–7.
When sixth-grader Lincoln moves to a new town, he’s forced to spend after-school hours at the memory-care home where his mother works. There he meets a cast of quirky residents (including one woman who likes to belt out show tunes buck naked) and comes to appreciate the heroic work of caregivers who strive to ensure that these patients retain some dignity. Lightened with humorous middle-school situations, this is a thoughtful look at a growing problem.
The Space Between Lost and Found. By Sandy Stark-McGinnis. 2020. Bloomsbury, $16.99 (9781547601233). Gr. 4–6.
Fifth-grader Cassie’s mom, a mathematics whiz and avid swimmer, has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, but the disease affects Dad (who becomes overly safety-conscious) and Cassie (who cuts herself off from friends) as well. In an attempt to help Mom cross something off her bucket list, Cassie plans a trip to San Diego so Mom can swim with the dolphins one last time. Perceptive and empathic.
The Things Owen Wrote. By Jessica Scott Kerrin. 2017. Groundwood, $14.95 (9781773060293). Gr. 5–8.
Granddad, who has been taking care of Owen while his parents are vacationing, suggests a weekend excursion to Iceland, and Owen readily agrees. But he becomes alarmed by Granddad’s forgetfulness: he leaves his driver’s license at home, packs his suitcase with only socks, and is unable to count out cash to pay a restaurant bill. Behind-the-scenes efforts from friends of Owen’s late grandmother and a kindly Icelandic woman help keep things on track and ensure the pair’s eventual safe return.
Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry. By Susan Vaught. 2016. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, $16.99 (9781481422796). Gr. 5–8.
Secrets surrounding a 50-year vendetta between two former best friends and civil rights workers come to light through the efforts of 12-year-old Dani, whose Grandma Beans lies nearly comatose in the final stages of dementia. Details about the 1962 Meredith riot at Ole Miss and issues of cultural appropriation mesh seamlessly with the complex family dynamics of caring for an advanced Alzheimer’s patient at home.
Kay Weisman reviews for Booklist magazine and is the author of If You Want to Visit a Sea Garden (2020).
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