Missing Okalee

Shadow Mountain. Sept. 2021. 256p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781629729329.
Gr 3-6–Twelve-year-old Phoebe and her younger sister Okalee couldn’t be more different. Okalee is outgoing and excels academically, while Phoebe’s singing and athletic abilities are less celebrated by her family. Despite their differences, the sisters are close and have a secret tradition called River Day, where they cross the river holding hands to celebrate the arrival of spring. When Okalee drowns after secretly deciding to cross the river alone, Phoebe is wracked with guilt and lies about the specifics of what happened. As rumors about her role in the drowning begin circulating, Phoebe struggles to come clean about what happened, how to move forward with her life, and how to literally find her own voice again, because Okalee’s death has impacted her ability to sing. This gorgeous, heartbreaking novel is difficult to read; Phoebe’s mother is so grief-stricken that she believes the rumors about Phoebe’s role in the drowning and is not able to offer the support her daughter needs. Bullying toward Phoebe at her school goes unchecked, though Phoebe herself is disciplined when she retaliates against her classmate. Fortunately, Phoebe has a strong community and receives the support she desperately needs from her best friend Wardie and his family, and she gets help processing her grief and guilt through sessions with her school counselor, ending the book on a resilient note. Phoebe and Okalee are Cuban and white. Wardie is Mexican and white, while Dr. Santana is Puerto Rican and Jamaican. Okalee’s closest friend Cora is Cree. Other characters read as white.
VERDICT With a major character death set at the beginning of this resonant novel, most of the plot’s focus is on coping with grief; young readers may need help processing this text.

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