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Children's Fiction Death & Dying

Walking Backward

by (author) Catherine Austen

Orca Book Publishers
Initial publish date
Oct 2009
Death & Dying, General, General
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2009
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Oct 2009
    List Price

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Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels

  • Age: 9 to 12
  • Grade: 4 to 7
  • Reading age: 9 to 12


When Josh's mother dies in a phobia-induced car crash, she leaves two questions for her grieving family: how did a snake get into her car and how do you mourn with no faith to guide you?

Twelve-year-old Josh is left alone to find the answers. His father is building a time machine. His four-year-old brother's closest friend is a plastic Power Ranger. His psychiatrist offers nothing more than a blank journal and platitudes.

Isolated by grief in a home where every day is pajama day, Josh makes death his research project. He tests the mourning practices of religions he doesn't believe in. He tries to mend his little brother's shattered heart. He observes, records and waits—for his life to feel normal, for his mother's death to make sense, for his father to come out of the basement.

His observations, recorded in a series of journal entries, are funny, smart, insightful—and heartbreaking. His conclusions about the nature of love, loss, grief and the space-time continuum are nothing less than life-changing.

About the author

Catherine Austen was raised in Kingston, Ontario, the youngest of five children. She studied political science at Queen's University and environmental studies at York University. While procrastinating in the face of exams, she wrote several short stories for literary journals. She worked through the 1990s in Canada's conservation movement, campaigning for federal endangered species legislation. In 2000, Catherine quit office life to raise her children and work as a freelance writer for environmental organizations and First Nations. While procrastinating in the face of deadlines, she began writing children's fiction. Catherine writes from her home in Quebec, which she shares with her husband, Geoff, and their children, Sawyer and Daimon.

Catherine Austen's profile page


  • Short-listed, Red Cedar Book Award nominee
  • Commended, CCBC Best Books starred selection
  • Short-listed, SYRCA Diamond Willow nominee
  • Short-listed, M.Y.R.C.A nominee
  • Short-listed, CLA Book of the Year for Children nominee
  • Short-listed, Quebec Writers' Federation Prize nominee
  • Commended, OLA Best Bets
  • Short-listed, CYBIL Award nominee

Excerpt: Walking Backward (by (author) Catherine Austen)

Dr. Tierney sent a scribbled note with the journal. It's very important to write every time you have a strong feeling, Josh, and review the journal each week. So when someone makes me laugh or cry, I'm supposed to say, "Hey, man, I've got a strong feeling coming on," and rush off to write it down. It's supposed to be private, but Dad will probably sneak into my room to read it. Then he'll think I'm sad all the time, and that will turn him into a sad person too. Seriously, this thing is dangerous.

Editorial Reviews

"An original and entertaining take on grief and coping with loss...[Josh] is easy to relate to and sustains this story with his strong, thoughtful and funny voice."

Canadian Children's Book News

"Differs from most bereavement stories in both its male narrator and its genuine, if quiet and rueful, humor… The result is a book that perceptively gives weight to the small as well as the large ways bereavement can change a family and grief can intermix with the continuation of life."

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

"The characters in Walking Backward are human, quirky and likeable...Josh's narrative perspective gives it humor and emotional honesty...An appealing book and a good pick for understanding the loss of a parent."

Puget Sound Council for Reviewing Children's Media

"Satisfying and realistic. This book would be a good catalyst for discussions about the impact of phobias or dealing with grief. Recommended."

Resource Links

"This will appeal to young people looking for a sad novel, as well as those wanting to relate to another's trauma...A definite success. Recommended."

Library Media Connection

"As Josh struggles to understand his family, moments of great tenderness and emotion emerge…Josh comes to accept that dealing with loss is a messy, frustrating, and painful matter that cannot be avoided through mere ritual."

Quill & Quire

"The dead-parent genre is a busy one, but Austen breaks from the pack with this confident and peculiar debut… Austen is more interested in people's alternately funny and haunting reactions to grief… Austen is unsentimental about anger and regret, and that alone makes this a refreshing change of pace."


"Josh's sense of humour, which lightens the somber subject matter of this novel, comes to light throughout the book...While professionals may find this novel useful as bibliotherapy, Walking Backward is much more than a therapeutic tool. With its well-drawn characters and depth of understanding, this work of children's literature should withstand the test of time...Highly Recommended."

CM Magazine

"Austen comments - subtly, non-judgmentally - on the secular, nuclear nature of the contemporary North American family… Her writing cuts straight to the heart. She delivers a wise, rich novel, wonderfully compelling for children and adults alike."

The Globe and Mail

"In this impressive debut novel, Josh keeps a journal to chart his feelings and thoughts, allowing readers to follow his journey from sadness to acceptance and the eventual return of cohesion in his family. Given the subject matter, the story is never maudlin, and Josh's voice rings natural and true. An elegantly crafted volume of lasting power."

Kirkus Reviews

"This novel's refusal to sentimentalize loss or to accept quick or predictable solutions in conjunction with its ability to create a realistic and complex protagonist allows for a refreshing perspective on the story of the loss of a parent."

Canadian Literature

"Will resonate with those who have experienced a loss, even one not as traumatic as the loss of a mother, and its gentle portrayal of the stages of grief will strike a chord with those who are starting to think about the big questions of life and death and loss."

Book Notes (Center for Children's/Young Adult Books, MSU)

"A charming and sometimes whimsical story."

Washington State YA Book Review

"Throughout his emotional journey, Josh's voice is both natural and believable. Austen is both unsentimental and unapologetic in her employment of precise and elegant prose, and the complicated and often humorous reactions to grieving practices lend themselves to an enjoyable read."

School Library Journal

"Austen's protagonist is an endearing blend of smart-aleck and lost boy. The story - recounted in journal entries - deftly tackles such weighty topics as atheism, grief and the ties that bind a family together."

Montreal Review of Books

"Josh's wise-beyond-his-years voice will admirably answer the call when young patrons ask for 'sad' books and also provide counsel when young people must deal first-hand with the loss of a loved one."

NMRLS Youth Services Book Review

Librarian Reviews

Walking Backward

Josh is 12, his mom has just died in a bizarre accident and his father is building a time machine in the basement. This doesn’t leave much guidance for him or his little brother Sammy, who has no one to tell him to get dressed or go to bed and stop obsessively watching Scooby Doo cartoons. To make the grief process easier, Josh has researched how many of the world’s religions mourn and Catherine Austen does an excellent job of integrating this information seamlessly into the narrative. In a journal from the family’s psychiatrist, Josh describes his difficult summer, including an investigation into his mother’s death and the creation of a scrapbook of his memories before they start to fade.

The climax, however, is out of sync with the rest of the book. Josh finds out who is responsible for his mother’s accident, but the question of blame and guilt is too large to be explored here and the book would have been better served without this part of the story.

Yet, even amongst the many children’s books dealing with death, Walking Backward is an original and entertaining take on grief and coping with loss. Josh’s stories show that adults are often intolerant towards those who have suffered a loss, hurrying children to start acting normal again and accept comfort in being told that things will “be OK.” Josh isn’t OK until he is allowed to mourn in his own way. He is easy to relate to and sustains this story with his strong, thoughtful and funny voice.

Source: The Canadian Children's Bookcentre. Summer 2010. Vol.33 No.3.

Walking Backward

When Josh’s mother dies in a suspicious car crash, he, his father and brother have no faith to guide them and no idea how to deal with their grief. As he struggles through the mourning period, Josh makes death his summer research project and learns about religious rituals, guilt and the stages of grief.

Source: The Canadian Children’s Book Centre. Best Books for Kids & Teens. 2011.

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