Missing Okalee

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Pub Date Sep 07 2021 | Archive Date Sep 30 2021

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When compared to her nearly perfect little sister, Phoebe Paz Petersen feels she doesn’t measure up in her parents’ eyes. Okalee is smart and beloved for her sunny disposition, which makes it hard for Phoebe to stand out in their small town in Montana. But if she can get picked for the coveted solo in the school choir, she’ll stop being a middle-school nobody and finally get her chance to shine.

Despite her sister’s annoying perfection, Phoebe actually loves spending time with Okalee. They have one very special, secret tradition: River Day—when they hold hands and make their way across the cold, rushing Grayling River, to celebrate the first hint of spring. This year’s River Day crossing, however, goes horribly wrong, and Phoebe’s world is suddenly turned upside down.

Heartbroken and facing life without Okalee, Phoebe is more determined than ever to sing the solo in the school concert as a way of speaking to her sister one last time. But Phoebe’s so traumatized by what happened, she’s lost her beautiful singing voice.

Kat Waters wants the choir solo for herself and is spreading a terrible rumor about what really happened to Okalee on River Day. If Phoebe tells the truth, she believes her family will never forgive her and she may never get to sing her goodbye to Okalee. Even worse, somebody is leaving Phoebe anonymous notes telling her they saw what really happened at the river.

Missing Okalee is an empathy-building novel about the unbreakable bond between sisters and finding the courage to do what’s right amid heartbreak and tragedy.

When compared to her nearly perfect little sister, Phoebe Paz Petersen feels she doesn’t measure up in her parents’ eyes. Okalee is smart and beloved for her sunny disposition, which makes it hard...

Advance Praise

"Melchor combines grief with guilt for an emotionally intense story about Phoebe, whose sister drowns in a river...Captures the pressures of being an older sister and the unique challenges of losing a sibling. As her perspective matures, Phoebe authentically struggles to imagine other people complexly, leaving plenty of room for significant self-exploration. Meanwhile, many readers will identify with her passion for self-expression through singing. Accessible prose mixed with a candid look at death makes this likely to be popular with reluctant readers. For fans of Jude Banks, Superhero (2021) and other serious middle-grade novels with heart, this is a solid addition to any collection."


"Gorgeous, heartbreaking novel. Phoebe has a strong community and receives the support she desperately needs from her best friend and his family, and she gets help processing her grief and guilt through sessions with her school counselor, ending the book on a resilient note. Resonant novel."

—School Library Journal

"Melchor combines grief with guilt for an emotionally intense story about Phoebe, whose sister drowns in a river...Captures the pressures of being an older sister and the unique challenges of losing...

Available Editions

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ISBN 9781629729329
PRICE $16.99 (USD)

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Average rating from 32 members

Featured Reviews

When Phoebe’s sister, Okalee, drowns in the river Phoebe lies about how it happened. She is then consumed with guilt and grief. Her mom can barely look at her. Then someone leaves a note hinting they know what happened. Who? Phoebe tries to find out who saw what happened, and this sets off a series of unfortunate events. Will she find out who sent the note? Will she be able to tell the truth as to what really happened? Great book.

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Missing Okalee is a novel that speeds by, treating on place, family, loss, and grief. A powerful text for thinking about invitations to process traumatic events, and so important for young people to read. Highly recommended.

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When twelve-year-old Phoebe's sister, Okalee, drowns during 'River Day,' a spring river-crossing ritual that the sisters have observed in secret for years, Phoebe blames herself and lies about what actually happened. Her gut-wrenching guilt over her sister's death is only made worse when friends start rumors suggesting that Phoebe really is responsible, and even her mama seems to believe them. What follows is a harrowing story about the immediate aftermath of traumatic loss. Laura Ojeda Melchor's prose often reads like poetry. Her descriptions of scent and of nature bring Phoebe's world to startling life. MISSING OKALEE is a heartbreaking exploration of the ways raw grief can impact a community, a family, and an individual. My thanks to the author, to Shadow Mountain, and to NetGalley for the advanced copy.

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Just a book of heartbreak. In missing Okalee, you will meet a sister who is trying to put her life back together after the ultimate tragedy. My heart just ached through the entire story. I couldn't put it down.

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Thank you to the publisher for an e-ARC of this gem.

Phoebe's little sister Okalee is her biggest fan, but Okalee is near perfect, and Phoebe is constantly trying to measure up. When Phoebe finally wins the chorus solo, she feels her time has come, but an accident during a sisters tradition rocks Phoebe's world and she can't recover her voice, or her family.

I loved this book, but it could only be described as heartbreaking. I ached for Phoebe so often in this book, and wept through the ending of this book. Her pain was palpable, and her mother's grief so raw.

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Phoebe Paz Petersen might not have the bubbly personality of her little sister, Okalee, but she harbors a talent most people don’t know about. She doesn’t gravitate towards math or science or homework, but she does have a powerful voice. Phoebe’s best friend, Helena, and Okalee give her confidence to audition for the school’s annual spring concert. Phoebe knows if she wins the audition, she’ll gain the respect and notice of her small Montana community—and her parents.

Phoebe feels all the responsibilities of big sisterhood and struggles at times to follow their parents’ request to take care of her little sister. Okalee wants to spread her own wings and doesn’t take kindly to Phoebe’s cautious, older sisterly ways. Like sisters everywhere, Phoebe and Okalee share a secret not even their parents know about—River Day.

But this year, their River Day goes horribly wrong. What happens will forever change the lives of the Petersen family and will ripple out to change other lives in the close-knit community. The trauma of the day takes away the one thing Phoebe felt made her special—her singing voice.

As Phoebe struggles to regain her voice, her vocal rival starts a cruel rumor. A mysterious witness to River Day leaves notes demanding the truth about what really happened on the fateful day. Phoebe feels desperate to sign and honor Okalee, but the cauldron of emotions conspires to keep her silent.

Why I Loved This Book

Phoebe, acting as the story’s narrator, transports readers to the heart of her multicultural family with her beautiful, lyrical words and descriptions. As Phoebe and her family process the events of the day, readers learn how everyone reacts differently to grief.

When a tragedy happens at a school, or within a school community, newspapers always proclaim, “counselors are standing by to help the children process the event.” I’ve always wondered what the phrase means.

As an educator, I understand the importance of allowing children and young adults to ‘try on’ life experiences vicariously through fiction. Missing Okalee gives readers insight into what trauma counseling might look like for the individuals most closely associated with a tragedy. Students (as well as parents and teachers) need the valuable insights the book offers to understand how they, too, could find help if something tragic happens in their family.

Crushing guilt clouds Phoebe’s journey with grief. She struggles to deal with small-town rumors, the consequences of telling the whole truth, and the complicated relationships between family members.

Missing Okalee has a Jacob Have I Loved meets Bridge to Terabithia vibe with a fresh, own voices feel. Book lovers from 8-108, teachers, and librarians, will want to snag a copy of the book. And a box of tissue. I won’t lie. You’ll need tissue.


You’ll find me listed in the author’s credits at the back of the book. I sat next to Georgeline Morsette, the Chippewa-Cree poet, back before she knew how to write her name (we attended the same church). I’d smile as Georgeline wiggled because I could remember the days before my daughter, Laura, could sit still during church. Reading took care of that problem.

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#Missing Okalee #Netgalley

A story about tragedy, forgiveness and grief.
Two sisters, Phoebe and Okalee, as different as two sisters can be. Phoebe loves to sing and Okalee excellent on multiple subjects at school. Phoebe secretly wishes that she could do well in school, but also wants her parents to notice what she is good at too.
When tragedy strikes, Phoebe is scared, and doesn't tell what really happened, she keeps it trapped inside.
With the help of a school counselor and a good friend, Phoebe starts to heal from the tragedy.
Although this book, has everything happening so fast, I feel like it also shows the stages of grief. This book was hard to put down.

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Be ready to cry. And then cry again. Missing Okalee is a wonderful, empathy building book about loss. Through the eyes of Phoebe, you'll be taken on a journey through the expected layers of grief, pain, and anxiety, but the story is complex and also includes a focus on self esteem, guilt, rejection, trust, acceptance, and so much more.

Thanks again to NetGalley for a beautiful story.

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TW: Death of a child.

I’d like to thank NetGalley and the publisher for this e-ARC. All opinions are my own.

Set in a small town in Montana, a young girl must deal with the grief of her dead sister while also harboring a horrible secret about that day. This is a story of guilt, losing a loved one, and forgiving yourself for things that are out of your control.

Phoebe is a Cuban-American sixth grader who has a younger sister named Okalee that is 10 years old. Phoebe loves singing and is excited when she wins the chance to sing a solo at her school’s spring concert.

When their parents leave to visit a relative for a day, Phoebe and Okalee decide to take a swim in the nearby river. It is not a good time of the year to be in the river because it is still fast running with snow melt, and when Okalee refuses to cross with her older sister, she is swept away with the current and drowns. When Phoebe is asked about the incident, she lies.

The death of her sister has taken away Phoebe’s singing voice because of her guilt and grief. But she is determined to get it back before her big night. When Phoebe returns to school, she is assigned to Dr. Santana for grief counseling. She also discovers a note—someone knows that she lied about the details surrounding Okalee’s death.

I really enjoyed this book!

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Though families are never supposed to have a favorite child, twelve-year-old Phoebe Peterson believes without a doubt that her younger sister Okalee holds that place in their parents’ hearts. Growing up in a small town in Montana, the sisters are close despite their differences, and every year they commemorate River Day, a celebration of their own creation. This year, Okalee is determined to cross the Grayling River by herself, despite the great danger involved in traversing a river through snowmelt. Pride and fear affect the decisions the girls make, resulting in a swirling tangle of emotions as dynamic as the river itself.

This middle grade coming-of-age story features Phoebe, a sixth grader whose grades have never been stellar and who dreams of becoming a professional singer one day. Okalee is two years younger and a standout student, wholeheartedly supporting Phoebe’s efforts especially when it comes to singing. However, Okalee is beginning to emerge into her own independence, a reality that is the precursor to the moment that changes both of their lives forever. As Phoebe gets lost in her own emotions, she sometimes fails to recognize that others around her are struggling, too.

Heart-wrenching plot points add to the intensity of this novel. While the primary event is somewhat expected because of the title and allusions early on in the story, the unfolding of the narrative is cathartic for young and older readers alike. Well-suited to middle grade readers, this story explores feelings of guilt, disappointment, and inadequacy on many levels. Greatly flawed, Phoebe makes mistakes like everyone does, and working through the consequences of her actions is a painful, albeit necessary growth experience.

Due to the general predictability of the plot, Phoebe’s emotional development becomes the central focus of the narrative. Challenging interpersonal dynamics are familiar to readers of all ages, and observing Phoebe’s reaction to an unthinkably tragic experience helps connect readers to grief in their own lives. Unique characters and an easily accessible narrative make this a good fit for confident middle grade readers who appreciate an emotionally complex story.

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This book is aimed at middle-grade readers but as a warning, the book deals with death, guilt, grief, bullying, and other heavy topics.

Phoebe and Okalee are close sisters and while they might fight or argue on occasion, they are a strong support system for each other. That is until River Day and Okalee dies in the river. What follows is Phoebe's attempt to deal with what happened that day and the guilt she feels about the situation.

The story is heavy and my heart breaks for Phoebe and everything she has to deal with including a bully that spreads rumors and has Phoebe questioning what really happened that day. Did the events occur as she remembered? Did someone see what happened? We also see how the death of her sister impacts her parents, especially her mother who spirals down into depression.

I like how Phoebe does realize that she needs to talk to someone about the situation and talks to the school counselor. It reminds us that we cannot bottle all of our emotions up and sometimes talking to someone else helps us through a tragedy or to sort things out in our head. The guilt has also impacted Phoebe's ability to sing which only delights the bully since she wants to sing the solo in the school pageant that Phoebe rightfully earned. I was disappointed that the school didn't intervene more regarding the bullying but I am not sure how much they really knew since Phoebe doesn't report the acts.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and it brings to mind that life can be hard and that it is ok to ask for help and to grieve a loss. This may not be for everyone but would be a great book to discuss with younger children and how they might handle certain situations. We give this 5 paws up.

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This was definitely an emotional journey. The story told from the eyes of a young girl, hits all the emotional notes. The story felt like something from Katherine Patterson, Bridge to Terebithia or Jacob Have I loved. It showed the journey of guilt and of forgiveness in a way that was definitely experienced rather than read, The emotions were real, the relationships genuine, and the healing was authentic. Phoebe's relationships with her friends and her rivals grew throughout the story as they all fought their grief in this book. The light in this is the healing journey Phoebe and her family experience.

I received an early copy on NetGalley and this is my honest review.

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Thank you for giving me the opportunity to read an ARC of Missing Okalee!

I basically cried through this whole book. It is the incredibly beautiful and heartbreaking story of 12-year-old Phoebe, whose little sister, Okalee, drowns in a river during a secret ritual that the sisters have always shared. Phoebe feels guilty for her sister's death, and she has to figure out how to process her grief and find the strength to carry on. She deals with a lot of bullying and blame, and her family nearly gets torn apart in the aftermath of this tragic event. It is quite a dark book in many ways, but it is nonetheless a very powerful story. The writing style is breathtaking, and I found myself totally unable to put it down. I wanted to know what happened to Phoebe and her family in the end, and I felt satisfied with the way the story ended.

Definitely recommend!!

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Disclaimer: I received this e-arc from the publisher. Thanks! All opinions are my own.

Book: Missing Okalee

Author: Laura Ojeda Melchor

Book Series: Standalone

Diversity: Cuban MC, Chippewa cree side characters, Lantinx side characters

Rating: 4/5

Recommended For...: middle grade readers, contemporary, drama

Genre: MG Contemporary

Publication Date: September 7, 2021

Publisher: Shadow Mountain

Pages: 256

Recommended Age: 12+ (Religion, Drowning, Grief, Bullying, Blackmail, Attempted suicide mentioned, Slight violence)

Explanation of CWs: Drowning is shown and talked about in detail. Bullying is shown throughout the book. Religion is sparsely mentioned. There is an attempted suicide mentioned in passing. There is also one punch thrown and aggressive shaking.

Synopsis: When compared to her nearly perfect little sister, Phoebe Paz Petersen feels she doesn’t measure up in her parents’ eyes. Okalee is smart and beloved for her sunny disposition, but if Phoebe can get picked for the coveted solo in the school choir, she’ll stop being a middle-school nobody and finally get her chance to shine.

The sisters have one very special, secret tradition: River Day—when they hold hands and make their way across the cold, rushing Grayling River to celebrate the first hint of spring. This year’s River Day crossing, however, goes horribly wrong, and Phoebe’s world is suddenly turned upside down.

Heartbroken and facing life without Okalee, Phoebe is more determined than ever to sing the solo in the school concert as a way of speaking to her sister one last time. But Phoebe’s so traumatized by what happened, she’s lost her beautiful singing voice.

Kat Waters wants the solo for herself and is spreading a terrible rumor about what really happened to Okalee on River Day. If Phoebe tells the truth, she fears her family will never forgive her and she may never get to sing her goodbye to Okalee

Review: For the most part I really liked this book. I thought that the book was beautifully well written with well developed characters and incredible World building. I feel like if you have a child that is looking for a contemporary book or one that's filled with a slight bit of drama in it, then this is the best book that they can start off with.

However, I did get mad throughout the book with the main character's mother and with the bullying situation. I feel like she was emotionally abusive and I did not like how it made it so her behavior was acceptable given that she was going through grief. I know that in times of grief people act way differently than what they would normally, but when you're a parent that is no excuse to say the things that this character said to her daughter. I also didn't like how the bullying situation was centered on it being the main characters problems to resolve. There are two big instances where the bullying pushed the main character over the cliff so to speak and she retaliated in an aggressive manner. Well acting out violently is not something that kids should be doing on a regular basis, I feel like the whole of the circumstance wasn't considered and I did not feel like the other students were given punishments for their part in the action.

Verdict: It's good!

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It’s difficult to know what to say about this book. It deals with hard situations, death and grief and guilt. It will definitely not be for everyone, but I could see myself recommending this to those who like this sort of thing or someone whose circumstances may be similar. It’s a well-crafted story.

Pheobe and Okalee are sisters. There’s a little rivalry there, but for the most part they get along well and have a good relationship. When a fatal accident occurs, Pheobe gets scared and lies about what really happened. So she’s not only dealing with grief but with guilt.

There are great lessons learned. This story would certainly warrant discussion about how lies make a hard situation even worse and how truth helps in healing. There are some incredibly unlikeable characters and unfair situations that are hard to read about. This could aide in a discussion about what to do when life isn’t fair.

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This was a touching story about loss and forgiveness. I felt awful for Phoebe. Right at the very beginning she mentioned her little sister being her parents' favorite child, and then with everything that happened she felt a lot less loved. It was heart wrenching.

The main focus was a tragedy, and if that wasn't enough it was surrounded by guilt and a mean girl that caused added pain. And then there was a bit of a mystery involved.

Some of the thoughts/dialogue seemed much more mature than a sixth grader would have, but it was a very engaging story. I'd read more by this author.

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This middle grade book tackles tough issues like bullying, struggles with siblings and peers, trauma, loss, grief, guilt, and dishonesty.

Phoebe feels like she is living in the shadow of her little sister Okalee, who everyone loves. She thinks things will change and she will finally be noticed if she is chosen to sing the solo in the school program. Instead, Phoebe is traumatized when Okalee drowns, leading her to lie about what happened so her parents won’t know she is to blame. This causes her to be overcome with guilt along with her grief until a kind counselor helps her learn to forgive herself.

I thought the story was very well written. Readers understand and empathize with Phoebe from the beginning. It was also very heavy and sad but ends on a happier, hopeful note. Thanks to Shadow Mountain Publishing for an ARC to use for my review.

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Phoebe Paz Petersen feels like she lives in the shadows of her little sister, Okalee. Okalee is smart and cheerful, she seems to have it all. Phoebe finally feels like she has the chance to shine when she is chosen for the solo in the school choir, and Okalee is thrilled for her. Okalee and Phoebe are still close, in spite of their difference. When they decide to celebrate their secret tradition, River Day, where they cross the cold, rushing river at the beginning of spring together, something goes terribly wrong.
Determined to still sing her solo, in honor of Okalee, Phoebe presses on, but her voice refuses to work. And on top of that her rival is doing everything in her power to stop Okalee from singing the solo, including spreading rumors about what really happened at the river. Phoebe worries that if she tells the truth no one will forgive her. Can Phoebe find her voice in time to honor her sister and heal what has been broken?
This is a heart-wrenching story of sisterhood and family and truth. It takes a look at the effect that loss and grief can have on different people. The reader will develop empathy for the characters in the book, and hopefully carry that over into the world around them. It was a good book, although emotional to read.

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Missing Okalee is a middle grade novel exploring a sister bond and grief. After losing Okalee in an unimaginable way, her sister must come to terms with her death. While navigating her all encompassing grief, she is also navigating the perplexities of middle school. This was an emotional coming of age story that shattered my heart!

Nature has a predominant feature in this book and I loved that aspect. The writing is geared for middle grade but is almost lyrical in its presentation. I loved the book Bridge to Terabithia as a child and Missing Okalee was very reminiscent of that. The writing is fantastic and brings the emotions to life. The sorrow of this family was palpable and my heart broke for them. This was a heavy read, and my role as a mother added another layer to the story for me. The characters were full of depth and their raw grief showcases the many ways that people grieve after a traumatic loss. I would recommend this book for older readers because of the subject matter but I enjoyed it! 4⭐️ My thanks to @shadowmountainpub for sending me a gifted copy in exchange for my honest review!

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Have tissues nearby! What a heartbreaking story. I think I kind of knew what was going to happen before I started reading the book, but not enough that I wasn't completely horrified when it did. And the burden that Phoebe makes herself carry was so heavy, it made my heart hurt. Yes, this is a horribly sad story. But there is light at the end of the tunnel, so I definitely recommend reading it.

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Thank you, NetGalley, for an e-ARC of Missing Okalee by Laura Ojeda Melchor.
A story of friendship, sisters, and loss. A story that looks at relationships and guilt. A great book to help tweens learn about empathy and heartache. Beautifully written story that touches your heart.

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Wow, this was a powerful read. A story about pain, redemption, repentance, and forgiveness.

Phoebe is not perfect like her little sister, Okalee. Okalee is smart, optimistic, and makes friends with everyone. Phoebe is a little more rough around the edges and struggles in school. One thing that Phoebe does have though, is a passion for singing. With Okalee's encouragement, Phoebe lands a coveted spot in the school choir concert. Another girl, Kat, has always gotten this part, so there is a lot of resentment there.

It is River Day, a day when the two sisters cross over to celebrate the beginning of Spring. Being bigger, Phoebe insists they hold hands to stay safe. Okalee is determined to cross on her own and a tragic accident enfolds. So many people are affected by this tragedy. Phoebe holds great guilt when she lies about what happened, she gets stage fright at crucial moments and her mom is completely heartbroken over it. Kat is determined to take that solo for herself.

There were a lot of tears while reading this one. So much was going on and I was rooting for Phoebe the whole way. I loved watching the relationships evolve and there was so much truth in how it was handled. Beautiful story that can be hard to read if you've ever dealt with the loss of a loved one.

Thanks to NetGalley and Shadow Mountain for an ARC in exchange for my honest review.

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I absolutely love middle grade fiction. This was a touching, yet hard book to read at times. The weight and guilt of what Phoebe went through was done well by the author.

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A book about family, life, over coming challenges, and being true to yourself. This book felt fresh and new while I was reading it and was really engaging throughout.

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This book was hard to read as a mom and sister due to the death of the sibling. It was well written, just very emotional and I had to stop reading it several times. It might be too intense for my 5th graders.

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