Rosa, Sola

Author: Carmela A. Martino

Publisher: Arquilla Press

Range Age: 11 + (parental guidance required)

Read this book and weep.

The subject of death, grief and loss is rarely explored in books for children and teens.  It’s a challenging subject.  But Rosa, Sola is a special book. It will capture your heart and then break it.  Written from the point of view of nine-year-old Rosa, the reader is taken on a tender, sad and yet hopeful journey back into 1960’s Chicago where her Italian immigrant family lives through the unimaginable sadness of losing a baby son.

An important feature of this book is the brilliant way in which Carmela A. Martino brings to life an Italian immigrant family – they are in turn loving and playful, passionate and furious, hopeful and hardworking, honest and confronting, truly loyal and forgiving. In between cooking and eating their favourite dishes, the family holds onto traditional ways while navigating a new world as ‘foreigners’. And for Rosa, her Catholic faith provides her with something to hold onto in the midst of a tragedy that turns her world upside down.

Rosa, as a character, is easy to love.  We are cleverly drawn into her dreams and hopes for a baby brother. Rosa’s mother and father are also lovingly written by Martino who has clearly used her own childhood experiences to bring her characters to life. Time is taken for us to get to know about Rosa and her family – which makes the loss of their baby so heart wrenching to read.

This is the sort of book that some young people will love.  Others will probably give up on it. The material is challenging.  Rosa’s parents go through a difficult time – they get angry and mad, they get sad and feel like giving up.  From Rosa’s point of view – they forget about her when she needs them most. Some young people will find it difficult to understand that times were different in the early 1960’s – Rosa is not even allowed to go to the funeral because “children don’t go to funerals”.

At 155 pages this is a long novel for a young person to tackle.  None the less, the story remains engaging as Rosa’s parents slowly come to terms with the loss of their only son. Along the way, Rosa’s aunties and uncles rally around and help as best they can. Rosa eventually decides that she can’t blame God and seeks forgiveness.  The depiction of Rosa’s Catholic faith in this book is delightful – she says rosaries, goes to Midnight Mass, prays on her knees in front of a Madonna statue and seeks refuge with St Francis of Assisi. What makes this such a wonderful book is the authentic ‘voice’ of Rosa – so beautifully and lovingly portrayed.

Carmela A. Martino

There are no illustrations in the book. I would probably recommend it to ages 11 or 12 and up depending on the reading ability of the child. Children who do not like reading will struggle with it because of the length of the book.  The language is not hard and if it were not so long it would be a good read-aloud book. Parental and teacher guidance is recommended due to the sensitive topic it explores, and teachers, I would discuss the appropriateness of the book with parents before suggesting a young person read it.  There is a very handy glossary of Italian words and phrases included, plus a section for discussion questions at the conclusion of the book.

So what are the lessons learnt in this sad story? Rosa learns something new about each and every person who supports her.  She learns about death, grief, her faith and herself.  As each person slowly recovers from the shock of such a tragic death, there is hope found in different ways.  New flowers and vegetables are planted, the summer holidays begin and life starts to get back to ‘normal’ again. There is no ultimate, satisfying conclusion to this story – only the subtle emergence of Hope that arises in and around Rosa’s world.

There are so many points of discussion for this story.  But a story like this needs discussion.  Young people will need the opportunity to reflect upon and make sense of the themes and questions it raises.  Rosa ultimately finds great comfort in her Catholic faith. For Rosa, God is a tangible presence, and she uses her faith to make sense of her world.

I recommend this book highly as a valuable addition to your collection of Catholic books for children and young people. My only wish is that more Catholic books such as this were written, particularly in my home country of Australia.

Teacher and Homeschool Resources

There are questions at the end of the book aimed at helping young readers more fully explore Italian culture, family relationships and the emotional response of the characters.

For ages 11 – 14 I would ask students to write to the fictitious character of Rosa.  We would probably have discussions as a family or class, and explore what might be an appropriate thing to write to Rosa.  Some possible prompting questions:

  • what would you like to say to Rosa?
  • Think about when Rosa was very sad.  What would you say to her if you met her – how could you give her hope and comfort?
  • what do you think God would say to Rosa?
  • Draw a picture/write a poem – create something you could give to Rosa to help her through grief.  How will it comfort her – write a paragraph on how you think your creation will comfort Rosa.