Our instinct is often to want to shield kids from death, despite death being something that is difficult for adults to understand any better. And despite the chances that children will encounter it in some form—whether it’s the passing of a loved one or a close friend’s loved one, or even a tangential acquaintance.
Enter SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS, a new middle grade novel by Joanne Levy, about a girl whose family runs a funeral home. Besides being a brilliant idea, Joanne pulls it off with just the right balance between heartfelt, moving, sad, funny and respectful, as the main character Evie must navigate a friendship with Oren whose parents have just been killed in a horrific car accident. I’m so honored and excited to welcome Joanne to our blog.
MD: Hi, Joanne–welcome to …From the Mixed Up Files!
JL: Thank you so much for having me! I’ve been following along almost since the beginning so it’s a great honor to be here. And thank you so much for the kind words about SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS—I’m so pleased it resonated with you!
MD: Absolutely. Joanne, I had to laugh when your email subject line to me was “The book whose title doesn’t do well as a subject line.” I definitely can see that when you’re cold calling people to promote your book offering them condolences (“Sorry for your loss”) might get you off on the wrong foot! It’s both a funny joke but also feels like perhaps it is a metaphor for the complicated business of writing a children’s book—or any book for that matter—that is about death and the rituals and procedures surrounding it. Beyond avoiding putting the title in email subject lines, what were other challenges or complications you had to navigate when writing SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS?
JL: It wasn’t until I started sending out emails about the book that it quickly occurred to me that I might alarm people with a subject line containing the title! Of course, that pitfall was easily avoided. What was more difficult to navigate was including the right content in the book. You’re right that writing a book with such difficult topics (not just for kids, either, since as you say above, adults also struggle with death, grief, and loss) is complicated business. I didn’t want to scare kids or be overly graphic, but at the same time, I felt it was really important to be honest and pull back the curtain on death and funerals in a way that would satisfy readers’ curiosity without crossing the line into nightmare territory. I made very conscious decisions in what details to include and which to leave out and hope that I found that right balance. Even so, I recognize that some readers are going to wish there were more details and some might wish there were fewer and some won’t pick up the book at all. That’s perfectly okay, especially when it comes to difficult topics.
Still, as I’m writing this response to your question, I’ve only gotten feedback about the book from adult readers so I am very nervously holding my breath, waiting to hear from kids.
MD: Evie’s family runs a Jewish funeral home and Evie opens up to the reader (myself included) many of the mysteries of the rituals and practicalities surrounding death and burial –whatever the religion–that are often shrouded in mystery and whispers, deemed too morbid or “gory” to think about. I personally found it refreshing and eye-opening and I think other readers, young and old, will too. Were there parts though that you originally put in but had to take out?
JL: As I mentioned above, I was very conscious of the details I included in the book. I wanted to make sure that each was organic to the story and not just there for shock value. So I don’t think I had to back out any details but I will say that I struggled a little with how far I wanted to go with respect to Evie and Oren seeing a body. Slight spoiler: It wasn’t until I wrote the scene where they open the fridge that I even knew for sure what was going to happen there. Looking back, it feels inevitable that it would play out the way it did (and I strongly feel I made the right choice) but just to give you that little behind-the-scenes insight into how it happened, it took until that moment for me to know what was going to happen even though I’d known for weeks that the scene was coming.
Sidebar: if anyone is interested in my research, I have put a page on my website that tours the funeral home my dad manages – with pictures and further reading links. You’ll find it here.
MD: Great, thank you. In general, how did you balance writing a book about death and funerals with writing a book for children?
JL: My number one consideration when writing for kids is being absolutely honest. That doesn’t mean I need to put every single detail about death and funerals on the page, but I’m not hiding them, either. Kids are curious and resilient and want to know what happens to us when we die. That said, this book is about so much more—friendships and bullying and finding little joys in life, even in dark moments.
Also, I looked at the story through Evie’s eyes and how she would see the things around her. She sees funerals nearly every day and it’s just a part of her life and family business, so while many of us shy away from death and grief, for her, elements that we find taboo or strange are mundane. Caskets? She sees them as dust-collecting furniture she has to polish. It’s through her perspective that we can get past the scary symbols and rituals to the feelings underneath.
MD: To what extent did you draw from your own experiences? You mention in the promotional materials that you did research by “touring” the funeral home your father manages. Did your family manage the funeral home when you were growing up too? If so, like Evie, did you help out? And did you find that other children had difficulty accepting you and/or understanding the vital role your family played in the community?
JL: Actually no, my parents came to the funeral business later in life. My great aunt was a member of the group of volunteers that prepares bodies for burial and I believe she recruited my dad who, in turn, recruited my mom. The manager of my hometown Jewish funeral chapel retired and my father took over that role and I believe by then he was in his sixties. So I didn’t grow up entrenched in the business the way Evie does in the book. But I’ve always been fascinated by the industry and had I been born to it, I have a feeling I’d have been the one dusting caskets and giving out tissues.
MD: One of the points that come up several times throughout the novel is the idea of respect, especially the importance of respecting the body of the person who has died. Can you talk about that?
JL: Not only is it built right into the ritual of caring for the body—there are even specific prayers that require those preparing the body for burial to beg forgiveness for any inadvertent wrongdoing–but this is how my father looks at his role. He takes great pride and care in what he does and that respect—both for the deceased and their families—never wavers. Knowing that gave me great comfort when we laid my mom to rest because I knew everyone taking care of her would treat her with that same respect. I never had to worry and I felt that it was really important for readers to know that the people behind the scenes really, really care about what they do and take it very seriously.
MD: This is your 6th published book. Congratulations! Did you find the process of writing this one similar or different to your previous book? Did you feel more experienced having gone through the writing, editing and publishing process before?
JL: Every book feels like its very own mountain to climb but I will say that with every book I trust my process more. That doesn’t mean books are easier to write, just less anxiety-inducing and I know that even when I feel blocked, it’ll come back and I’ll get it done. I just need to trust that process and get out of my own head (or house – long dog walks are great to unstick plots!).
That said, this book was a huge challenge because of how important it was to me to get it right. I was committed to making it readable and entertaining and maybe even educational for kids, same as all my books. But SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS is also a tribute to my dad and those like him who do such important work. I also wanted it to be accurate, accessible, and interesting to non-Jews as well. I have never worked harder, done so much research on a project, or sent out to so many beta readers for feedback, but I’m proud of the result and it feels like a job well done.
On Crafting (and writing!):
MD: I follow you on Instagram and adore all the crafty things you make and sell on Etsy. Do you find there is a connection between being a writer and the other creative things you do?
JL: That’s a great question and I think that indirectly there is a connection and it’s that creativity piece. I was always a crafty kid and I love being creative and making things with my hands. But crafting things out of wool or some other tangible medium is different than crafting worlds and characters out of thin air. Still, I think that creativity begets creativity and one type can influence another and crafts have woven their way into my books – quilling in for SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS, knitting in FISH OUT OF WATER.
That said, repetitive crafts, like needle felting (stabbing wool with special needles), give my brain space to wander while my hands are busy. I’ve detangled many a plot issue while my hands were occupied with other things. I think a lot of writers turn to other artistic pursuits either as a respite from a constantly whirling mind, or to give that mind space to work in the background.
Hmm. That feels like a convoluted answer to a very straightforward question. Let’s just say yes.
MD: Haha. As a knitter, crocheter and needlepointer myself I am smiling at that answer! 🙂
MD: Joanne, when I first met you it was at breakfast my first morning as a fellow of TENT: Children’s Literature, a week-long writing residency –I was a 2019 fellow and you was a past fellow, returning to use the time as a retreat as well as mingle and meet the new crew of authors writing children’s literature with Jewish content. I was jet lagged and bleary-eyed from my journey but I’ll never forget how I perked up when you told me you were writing a novel that is set in a Jewish funeral home, based somewhat on your own experience of being part of a family who manages a Jewish funeral home. I thought it was a brilliant idea, with so much potential, not to mention something that would definitely fill a hole in kidlit, with the practicalities of death in any religion not something often covered.
I was delighted this past month to read the finished result. I think that readers will laugh and cry with Evie and Oren and that SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS will open up many important discussions about respect in death as well as the procedures and customs surrounding it regardless of faith or religion. Scroll down for a chance to win your own copy. Joanne, thank you so much for joining us on MUF today 🙂
JL: Meira, I remember that breakfast well and despite your jet lag and long journey, you were a joy to talk to! Thank you so much for your kind words about SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS. It means so much to me that the book resonated with you. While I wrote it from a Jewish perspective, I wrote it for ALL readers, hoping they would find relatable characters and lots to discuss. Thank you for this opportunity to chat about it here and share it with you and the MUF community!
MD: Thanks, Joanne!
SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS came out October 10th and can be found here and wherever fine books are sold.
Joanne has offered to send an author-signed copy of SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS to one lucky winner!
Enter here for your chance to win! Entries close October 28th 2021. US & Canada only.
UPDATE! Congratulations to Danielle Hammelef who has won a signed copy of SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS!