The Boy and the Gorilla

by Jackie Azúa Kramer (Author) Cindy Derby (Illustrator)

Reading Level: K − 1st Grade

This profoundly moving tale about a grieving boy and an imaginary gorilla makes real the power of talking about loss.

On the day of his mother's funeral, a young boy conjures the very visitor he needs to see: a gorilla. Wise and gentle, the gorilla stays on to answer the heart-heavy questions the boy hesitates to ask his father: Where did his mother go? Will she come back home? Will we all die? Yet with the gorilla's friendship, the boy slowly begins to discover moments of comfort in tending flowers, playing catch, and climbing trees. Most of all, the gorilla knows that it helps to simply talk about the loss--especially with those who share your grief and who may feel alone, too.

Author Jackie Azúa Kramer's quietly thoughtful text and illustrator Cindy Derby's beautiful impressionistic artwork depict how this tender relationship leads the boy to open up to his father and find a path forward. Told entirely in dialogue, this direct and deeply affecting picture book will inspire conversations about grief, empathy, and healing beyond the final hope-filled scene.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review

Following a mother's death, a gorilla lumbers slowly into the family's house, then the garden, as grown-ups wearing somber colors disperse. "Your mother's garden is beautiful," the gorilla says to her young son, who is working there. "May I help?" The gorilla stays close, answering questions and shoring up the mourning child emotionally. "I wish Mom was here to read to me," the boy says. The gorilla hunches over a book: "It's a good story. Your father might like this book, too." As the boy climbs a tree, hoping his mother will be at the top, the gorilla murmurs, "I'm right behind you." Derby (Outside In) paints loose washes of quiet colors, with the gorilla's solemn features and commanding presence drawing attention throughout. Kramer (The Green Umbrella) successfully walks a delicate line between foregrounding the boy's sadness ("When will I feel better?") and the gorilla's miraculous presence. Somehow, the gorilla's words sound less treacly than a human grown-up's might ("Each bite is like a memory," the gorilla says when the boy makes his mother's favorite cookies), and they offer meaningful support and comfort to the boy until he's ready to reach out elsewhere. Ages 4-8. Author's agent: Stephen Fraser, Jennifer De Chiara Literary. Illustrator's agent: Jennifer Laughran, Andrea Brown Literary. (Oct.)

Copyright 2020 Publishers Weekly, LLC Used with permission.

Review quotes

In the wake of Mom's death, a gorilla helps a child process grief and open up to Dad so they may heal and find hope again together...The gorilla's honest yet reassuring responses offer the child relief in the quest to understand. Feelings of hurt, confusion, isolation, and even resentment are acknowledged, but the gorilla's gentle presence and wise responses help to recenter the soul...Derby's flowing application of paint conjures a sea of emotions, and the paintings appear as if viewed through a wall of tears. Well-placed pops of bright color are both striking and uplifting. As father and child (both present White) hug, talk, and walk hand in hand under a sweeping sky, the gorilla fades into the distance. Luminous.
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Kramer deftly controls the text, allowing touches of evocative language in the gorilla's responses without losing the plainspoken groundedness of the boy's questions and quintessential shock and pain. Derby...uses fluid, graceful, light-filled watercolors that prevent the story from becoming overheavy...The book tacitly addresses the problem bereaved kids struggle with—how to draw on your parent when your parent is grieving too—while walking youngsters gently but surely through both hard and comforting truths about loss. This is honesty with a feather touch, and both kids and adults will welcome the book's artistry and compassionate candor.
—Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (starred review)

Jackie Azúa Kramer
Jackie Azúa Kramer is the author of The Green Umbrella and If You Want to Fall Asleep. She was previously an actress, singer, and school counselor. Jackie Azúa Kramer lives with her family in Long Island, New York.

Cindy Derby is the author-illustrator of How to Walk an Ant and the illustrator of the poetry collection Climbing Shadows by Shannon Bramer. Before she was an illustrator, she went to theater school and performed all over the world as a puppeteer. Cindy Derby lives in San Francisco.

Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Publication date
October 20, 2020
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books starred, 10/01/20

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