I met Clay Carmichael at the first Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators-Carolinas conference in 1990. “This is ready to submit,” I commented on her picture book, “Bear at the Beach” (North-South, ages 4-7). It was the first time I’d ever spoken these words in a critique session, and I’ve been marveling at Carmichael’s work ever since.
It’s not just the quality of each book she’s written (and illustrated), though there’s plenty of that. I’ve always admired her characterizations, the way she creates a strong sense of place, and her lyricism. I’ve appreciated, as well, her courage in handling tough subjects and exploring her own artistic possibilities.
Her picture books take on subjects of loss and love regained with a spare allegorical elegance. This theme is present also in her 2009 middle-grade novel, “Wild Things” (Front Street, ages 9-12), which has been translated into several languages, garnered notable reviews and won awards, many bestowed by Carmichael’s child fans. The heroine of “Wild Things” is Zoe, who has always cared for her mother. When her mother dies, she struggles to let down her guard so that she can let in the love of her caring uncle and a lonely feral cat.
In Carmichael’s newest novel, “Brother, Brother” (Roaring Brook, ages 14 and up), readers quickly enter the world of 17-year-old Billy “Brother” Grace, who wakes one morning to find his beloved grandmother dead. In the quiet house, Brother feels truly alone. He knows nothing of his father and little of the mother who was killed in an accident when he was 3. Beside his grandmother’s body is a newspaper. Circled are photos of Gideon Grayson, a powerful U.S. senator, and a picture of Brother’s drug-addicted twin, Gabriel, a connection that comes as a complete surprise to Brother.
Mem has taught him much about living. Her wise counsel is a constant guide for Brother and will strike a deep chord in readers partly because of Carmichael’s eloquent expression. “Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention,” she’s told him, and, “Don’t just spectate, Brother, witness, question, and think for yourself.”
Brother is fortified by this advice as he sets off to discover the truth about his family, traveling to the island off the North Carolina coast where the Graysons live. He’s accompanied by his psychic dog, Trooper, the 5-year-old brother of his irresponsible best friend and the ashes of his grandmother, grandfather and mother. Before long, he’s joined by thoughtful 17-year-old Kit, who has many of Mem’s sensitive qualities.
The mysteries and Brother’s discoveries keep the tension powerfully present. These are balanced with imperfect, but intriguing, complex characters; emotions that ring true; breathtaking turns of phrase and believable growth. Events may shake Brother to his core, but they “also righted something inside him. His inner compass seemed truer, his priorities clear.”
This resilient and loving young man understands that what matters to him are the people closest to him, kindness, loyalty and the protection of a steadfast dog.