“The Shared Room” by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrations by Xee Reiter
c.2020, University of Minnesota Press $16.95 / higher in Canada
Sometimes, things change in a minute.
You look, and it’s one way. You look again, it’s different, and you didn’t even see the change happening. You might not like it but that never matters. As in the new picture book “The Shared Room” by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrations by Xee Reiter, that’s when it’s best just to take a deep breath, roll your shoulders, and move on.
If it were any other winter day in Minnesota, it might‘ve been nice. It was warm enough for the snow to melt and you could almost see that spring was coming. But inside the house in east St. Paul, there were shadows acros
s a dark fireplace and quiet floors. There was light in the house, but no sunshine.
Pictures hung on the wall but it was hard to look at them because they reminded the family inside the house that one of them was missing. It had been seven months since the girl with the shiny brown hair and big toothy smile, the happy little girl in a framed picture, had walked into a lake, misstepped, and accidentally drowned.
Nobody had seen it happen and nobody in the family could forget. The mother and the father couldn’t even bear to take the sheets off the girl’s bed and for seven months, they visited her room and cried once, twice, three times a day. The house was quiet, except when someone would play a video of the girl on their phone, and everyone watched.
But then, something shifted.
Ever since the youngest brother was born, the oldest brother shared a bedroom with him in the house in east St. Paul. There were four bedrooms, four children and two parents, so there had to be sharing – until the parents asked the oldest brother if he’d like to have his sister’s room. He‘d have her bed. He would have her dresser and her closet.
But he would never have her back. Would he miss his sister forever?
Is “The Shared Room” a book for children?
You may wonder that after you’ve read it through once – and you should, to gauge its appropriateness for your child before you present it. It’s a lovely story, but it’s also deeply, unbearably sad.
While the artwork by Xee Reiter may soften things a bit, author Kao Kalia Yang’s tale starts with silence and ends like a grey tattered shawl draped over every page. This profound mourning leaves a heaviness over the story that stays well beyond the final page, and you’ll feel it in your chest.
And yet, if you can withstand the pall, there’s a sliver of hope inside this book and a reminder that life goes on. It also serves to tell a child that it’s best to come to terms with death but that never forgetting is okay, too.
Again, read this book through once before you give it to your 8-to-12-year-old. “The Shared Room” may prove to be too much, too early, too overwhelming – or it may change your child’s grieving.