How would a middle schooler navigate an unspeakable tragedy? That’s the subject Liz Garton Scanlon beautifully explores in Lolo’s Light, her second middle grade novel.
Twelve-year-old Millie is thrilled when she gets her first babysitting job. Her older sister isn’t available, so Millie gets to watch their neighbors’ 4-month-old baby, Lolo. The Acostas make the job easy, putting Lolo to bed before they leave so Millie just needs to check on her. As Millie revels in her new responsibility, she feels “something shift, like that exact moment [is] the end of her being a kid and the beginning of her being real, full-grown Millie.” The night goes swimmingly and the Acostas return home to find that all is well. But the next morning, the world turns upside down, because overnight, Lolo dies of SIDS.
Garton Scanlon clearly establishes that no one is to blame for this tragedy while also conveying Millie’s ongoing feelings of shock and anguish. As Millie grieves, she is also haunted—and comforted—by a light that seems to emanate from Lolo’s bedroom window whenever Millie walks past the Acostas’ house, which Millie believes is Lolo’s presence.
Millie receives support from numerous caring adults, including her parents, her teacher, her school librarian and a therapist, as well as the Acostas. Garton Scanlon makes superb use of Millie’s seventh grade science project, hatching chicken eggs, as a focal point for Millie’s sorrow, depression and growing anxiety. As Millie’s teacher tells her, “You are trying to make sense of something very big and ancient and scary. You’re trying to process how unbelievably fragile life can be.”
Despite its heavy topic, Lolo’s Light is ultimately a hopeful book about healing that captures how much hard work, along with time, the process can require. Garton Scanlon infuses the story with perfect moments of humor, too, such as the many puns that arise during the science project scenes. (Millie’s science project group’s name, “the Egg-ceptionals,” is only the beginning.)
In writing Lolo’s Light, Garton Scanlon undertook a monumental challenge. The result is a compelling novel that glows with understanding and empathy.