Dear RosieDear Rosie

Writer/Artists: Meghan Boehman & Rachael Briner
Additional Writing/Coloring: Tom Pickwood
Publisher: Random House Children’s Book

I distinctly remember the first time I felt grief. It was in third grade, and my friend, whom I’ll call Kelly Kapowski, passed away. I am unsure if it was sudden, but it felt that way to me. I understood that she had particular health needs – I was often her hallway buddy when she needed to go to the clinic to get her tracheostomy tube cleared – but I didn’t think she was sick or dying. It didn’t seem to slow her down, and I had grown accustomed to my friend being different. I was used to her calling me, inviting me to play Barbies or stay overnight. She was obsessed with Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Zack from Saved By The Bell, and preferred playing with the television on in the background. Then, one day, our teacher sent us home with a white envelope that we were told not to open until we were with a parent, and that was it. Kelly was gone. 

Dear Rosie is a gentle book that straightforwardly prepares middle-grade readers, ages eight to twelve, to embrace their grief and love their friends after they are gone. Millie is returning to middle school the summer after one of her best friends, Rosie, has passed away. Rosie was integral to Millie’s clique, including her other besties, Florance, Gabby, and Claire. With her pink hair and yen for mysteries, Rosie had this way of making the mundane spark with mischief and possibility. She was more than a member of their group. She was the throughline that made their friend circle make sense. Rosie’s absence makes going through the motions of a new school year feel uncanny. Gathering at the lockers, choosing seats in art class, and having the first weekend slumber party doesn’t feel right or natural without Rosie. 

Mille’s world, created by Meghan Boehman and Rachael Briner, is whimsical. It is peopled by anthropomorphized animals; Millie is a fawn, and her buds are a fox, a skunk, and a mouse. But it is not magical; no spell will bring Rosie back or an enchanted forest where they can commune with Rosie one last time. That is the brilliance of Dear Rosie. Their being animals makes the story just hypothetical enough to not be too devastating. Still, their fears, pitfalls, and revelations are literal and can directly apply to a young reader who will inevitably experience losing a loved one. 

My first instinct when I found out that Kelly was dead was to try to hide it. A staunchly obedient child, I put the sealed envelope directly into my backpack, but I didn’t even get as far as the school flagpole without overhearing the news. I can still hear the words of A.C. Slater, a boy from the other class, ringing in my ears. He held the tri-folded note at arm’s length as he turned to his fellow knucklehead, “Kelly Kapowski died… who’s Kelly Kapowski?” I walked the rest of the way home with a lump in my throat and my skin feeling all prickly. When I walked through the front door, I tried to greet my mom as if nothing had changed, but she already knew. I immediately crumpled into sobs, insisting I didn’t want to talk about it. 

Meghan Boehman perfectly captures how alienating it can feel when someone close to you dies. Even though Millie and her friends have each other, they each have their own comfort level when it comes to remembering and talking openly about Rosie, and even small gestures can stir up distressing emotions. Claire brings bright pink cupcakes to school for Rosie’s thirteenth birthday, and Gabby immediately begins to spiral. Gabby is panged with guilt for forgetting what day it is and has to be reassured by Millie that she is not a bad friend. Later, at a sleepover, Claire tearfully admits that the pain of missing Rosie is not healing, “It’s just… with her birthday and all, it feels wrong not having her here.” Florence and Gabby engulf Claire in a hug, but Millie withdraws, not wanting to be swept into Claire’s wave of despair. 

One of the most frustrating aspects of being a child in grief is the utter lack of autonomy. When you’re an adult who has lost someone, your grief comes with a to-do list so you can feel busy in your sadness. An adult can volunteer to organize a meal train to bring homemade casseroles to the grieving family or a carpool to the burial. Or you can send a gift of flowers or a Harry & David tower that summarizes the depth of your mourning in monetary value. Adult bereavement is productive and generous, while child sorrow is disorientingly passive. You do the same things you would usually do – go to school, have play dates with friends, be at home – but you do it sad.

Millie’s buzzing sense of helplessness in the face of Rosie’s death is captured when a cloaked stranger stops in her family’s laundromat and accidently leaves a sketchbook with a symbol that was one of Rosie’s frequent doodles. Millie channels her nervous, unsettled energy into convincing her friends to follow the cryptic clues in the notebook, which lead them to local landmarks of her hometown, Fredrick, Maryland. On their adventure, they discover a piece of Rosie they never knew and learn they can be friends forever, whether together or apart. 

So much of the credit for the thoughtful groundedness of Dear Rosie goes to Rachael Briner’s art. How she lovingly yet accurately depicts Frederick, Maryland’s historic downtown, is a nudge, reminding us that fairytales are imitating us, not the other way around. Her character designs are warm, expressive, and charmingly based on wildlife local to Maryland. Each person has a distinct fashion sense that seems both deliberate and easy. There is something so liberatingly judgment-free about all the characters being fauna. It’s a broad gesture toward every person being different, but that not being the issue. At that tender age of “middle-grade reader,” I remember clinging to differentiation like a life preserver. I so desperately tried to be the funny one or the artsy one, though really all I wanted to be was the pretty one. Each of Boehman and Briner’s characters is a “one” – unique, unmistakable, and unrankable.

When the day of Kelly’s funeral finally came, I resisted. I had never been to a funeral before, and the uncertainty and finality of it scared me. Mom convinced me to go for Mrs. Kapowski – that she’d want to see that Kelly’s friends loved her enough to show up for her one more time. The funeral was in an unfamiliar church with a weird dusty smell, and I was embarrassed that I couldn’t stop crying. 

I refused to go to the burial to see Kelly put in the ground, and my mother let me have that. I waited in the reception hall as the other mourners trickled in. Only then did I notice all the other kids from school: Lisa Turtle, Jessie Spano, and even Screech Powers. We all sat in a circle, our knees touching, and we started telling our stories of Kelly about how she was sweet, funny, and sometimes a little bossy, and we laughed. I remember this bubbly elation that came over me. I couldn’t believe that giggling could be part of grief. 

 I was floored by the reverence infused by Boehman and Briner in the pages of Dear Rosie – not only for the sacredness of grief but the sanctity of friendship during the universally tumultuous time of middle school. Middle school is hard enough without one of your best friends dying. In that prepubescent quagmire, you escape to your friends, desperate to carve out a private life separate from your parents, despite having no income, no automobile, and no clue. It’s bittersweet to remember how awkward and humiliating it was to become a teenager and how my friend Kelly badly wanted that for herself. When we played pretend, we always went to Bayside High. 

The greatest gift of Dear Rosie is that Boehman and Briner give children a shining example of what to do when a friend dies. Millie and her friends guide each other back to Rosie through memories, hidden monuments, and private ceremonies without parents, permission, or boundaries. Included in the back matter is an Author’s Note dedicated to Meghan’s childhood friend, Annalee, who was Meghan’s Rosie. She speaks frankly from experience that the pain of grief, once healed, isn’t forgotten but replaced with gratitude and love. It heartens me to know that a tween somewhere is going to need this story, and that Meghan Boehman and Rachael Briner put their hearts in the panels of Dear Rosie.

Dear Rosie is available to order now.

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