I love following Lauren DeStefano on Twitter. She’s engaging, funny, and she speaks about important things on a pretty consistent basis. Also, I have her Chemical Garden series in my classroom, and I seriously can’t keep the books in the room because kids are always checking them out. So when she talked about her new book, A Curious Tale of the In-Between, I wanted to read it.
Thankfully, I was lucky enough to get an ARC, and I was happy to have the chance to read and review her latest. A Curious Tale is about Pram, a young girl who “died just before she was born.” The opening line of the book does live up to the “curious” of the title, but of course DeStefano is too good to have it end there.
Though her aunts have given her lessons at home for most of her life, Pram must now attend the local elementary school. There, she meets and befriends a young boy her age, Clarence. This is only a little bit of a problem because her best friend, Felix—who happens to be a ghost—is just a tad jealous. Clarence and Pram get caught up with Lady Savant, a spiritualist, and must not only solve the mystery of who she is and what she does, but find a way to escape when things become a little too curious for the two of them. Throughout, Pram and Clarence learn many truths not just about themselves, but also about the people that care for them the most.
DeStefano’s note in the ARC gives an interesting background to this story: it was essentially written to help a family member understand and cope with grief—because books, after all, are where we find people and situations we can relate to, even if we can’t find them standing next to us.
After reading that note and Pram’s story, I was struck by how deep the themes of this middle-grade novel really are. The “in-between” place in which Pram exists is representative of that place in which we all find ourselves when we don’t relate to others, or when we are grieving and can’t quite be here with those we love because we are mourning the loss of a person we held dear.
Pram learns, during and as a result of her journey, how to let go of certain things she’d been holding on to for a long time (and yes, though she’s young, “a long time” still applies). So it is with grief: we learn to let go of attachments, to let go of anger, fear, resentment, and all of the other stages of grief as we come to a place of acceptance. And so Pram does.
DeStefano doesn’t shy away from the darker nature of grief, or what we can become when we don’t know how to let go, as shown in the character of Lady Savant. She also touches on the delicacy and fleeting nature of memories. Finley, another boy Pram encounters, tells her, “When memories get abandoned, they have a way of drifting about until they accumulate with other memories. They don’t like being lonely any more than people do, I guess.” To me, as a reader and a person who has recently experienced grief, this was so perfect. My memories of the loved ones I’ve lost do “drift” and get a bit gauzy over time, but the thing is, we have to make new memories, so those memories don’t become the only ones we have—so they don’t hold us captive in that loneliness. This is not to say we should abandon those memories; but we can’t let them get lonely, either.
Overall, Pram learns the importance of living—what it means to live and breathe and accept and carry on past things that held us still for so long. Though a middle-grade novel and perfect for a pre-teen or teenager coping with loss, Pram’s poignant story is a perfect allegory for anyone struggling with loss and grief.