Kid Lit Review of “The Goodbye Cancer Garden” by Janna Matthies

This uplifting story of a family of four [Mom, Dad, Jeffrey, and Janie (the narrator)], coping with the mom’s struggle against breast cancer, is perfect for kids. Even when the book takes on hard parts of the battle (and kudos to the author for doing so in an honest but non-scary manner), the not-so-nice aspects are painted in a positive light:

“In April Mom started chemotherapy, a super-strong medicine that destroys leftover bits of cancer. When she felt too sick to eat dinner, Dad made her applesauce. When she was too tired to get out of bed, I showed her seed catalogs and Jeffrey drew her pictures. When the doctor said soon the chemo would make her hair fall out, Mom said, ‘Let’s have a head-shaving party!’”

The author, drawing upon her own experiences, structured the story around her decision to plant a garden to use as a “timeline” for her recovery. As she stated in an interview:

“…on the day we planted carrot seeds, we discussed that I’d be done with chemo by the time we were eating those carrots.”

Other “markers” included tomatoes, green beans, lettuce, peppers, cucumbers, and pumpkins. A very cute passage, in which the family celebrates the end of chemo with a picnic featuring homegrown vegetables, shows a joyous group with this dialogue:

“‘Did you grow all this yourself?’ my friend Nikki asked.

‘Not everything,’ Jeffrey said. ‘We don’t know how to grow cream cheese yet.’”

At the beginning of their mom’s treatment, the doctor told the kids:

“…we’re working very hard to make her better – probably by pumpkin time.”

As the book ends, Mom is finally done with her treatment, and it is mid-October. And deep underneath big vines in the garden the children spot two perfect pumpkins and shout out their discovery to their parents:

“Mom blinked away happy tears. ‘How could we have forgotten?’ she said. The four of us pulled at the pumpkins with all our might and landed in a big heap, right in the middle of the Goodbye Cancer Garden.”

Evaluation: This is a very nice book about family love and support, no matter what the issue. At first, I had trouble getting used to the style of the illustrations by Kristi Valiant. Somehow I thought they didn’t seem realistic. But take a look: There is no denying the Janie of the book (see the cover, above) is the Isabelle of real life! (See her picture, just below.) (While the family of the book is fictional, the illustrator worked from character sketches of the author’s family.)


I would be remiss if I didn’t include a quote from the interview (also cited above) of the author by Jama Rattigan on her fabulous blog, featuring advice from the author for parents:

[Jama] Do you have any advice for other parents facing serious illnesses?

[Author] “Well, as I mentioned before, there’s serious and then there’s terminal. I’m clearly not experienced in the latter. My first words of advice are typically to create opportunities for open conversation. Offering honest information and emotional space is critical so your child has a place to process concerns and know what to expect, as much as possible. This is one reason I wrote the book—I hope it’s a tool in starting those conversations. I also recommend keeping up traditions that are important to your family, as much as you’re able. For instance, continuing with our garden despite my fatigue was important. Keeping up the backyard baseball games, spending time outdoors and praying together remained important.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Albert Whiteman & Company, 2011

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8 Responses to Kid Lit Review of “The Goodbye Cancer Garden” by Janna Matthies

  1. Oh this book has touched my heart! I think it perfect to help young families deal with cancer just by the quotes you state here. What a beautiful book!

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    What a fantastic book. Vance had a couple friends lose their moms to cancer when they were in elementary school so I’m sure there’s a real need for a book like this. I actually like the illustration on the cover a lot.

  3. stacybuckeye says:

    I’ve never seen a book like this for kids, how wonderful that she was able to turn such a terrifying thing into something so positive.

  4. Sandy says:

    OK you just made me cry.

  5. bookingmama says:

    Wow! What a great idea for a book. I had no idea that there was a picture book to help kids deal with their mom’s cancer treatment. I would be a basket case if I read this one.

  6. That looks like a very bittersweet story, but a great way to broach the topic with kids.

  7. Jenners says:

    I think it is great to have an open and honest book about this topic. Just because we wish it didn’t exist doesn’t mean it doesn’t and I”m sure there are many families that could benefit from this story. (And you’re right … the illustrator totally captured the daugher’s face!!)

  8. Love that the author’s family is illustrated in the pages of this wonderful sounding book!

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