I have to admit, for a few years now, I've managed to pick up some absolutely great reads that put kids in close proximity to corpses, funeral homes, morgues and medical examiners. And I was hoping for something similar, a creepy-proximity to corpses for Halloween or Day of the Dead book, but this was a much gentler and moving read than I expected.
Sickness comes to Alberto's family in the town of Allora, and he quickly goes from being a cabinet maker to a coffin maker, first for his friends and neighbors, later for his wife and children. When the purple lesions behind the ear have run their course and finally stop killing the townspeople, Alberto stays in his position, building coffins and attending funerals for those no one else will.
When he buries a woman he'd not seen in town before, and the person who brings the body says the bed where they found her was still warm, he thinks nothing of it. Until food starts going missing. Slowly but surely he draws out the "thief" -- a boy, Tito, and his bird, starving and freezing in the town's worst winter ever.
Tito is absolutely terrified of being discovered. Not just discovered, but merely seen by anyone other than Alberto. And it takes years for Alberto to coax out of him why. When he finally learns the reason, it's banging down their door, bringing with it everything they both have come to fear.
They find escape in an unusual place -- a coffin, the most resplendent, expensive coffin Alberto's ever made, for the (still-living) Mayor of Allora, no less.
I won't spoil how this ends, but I felt it was a great read for the month and pushed the boundaries of middle grade in a way that was moving while at the same time skirting the macabre.