Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Up High in the Trees

A Novel

by Kiara Brinkman

“A very moving and perfectly convincing evocation of the inner life of an unusual boy. . . . Brinkman’s portrait of Sebby and his family is humane and uncompromising, never maudlin, and, in the end, we root for Sebby as if he were our own.” —Dave Eggers, author of What is the What

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 352
  • Publication Date June 17, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4370-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 336
  • Publication Date July 17, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-1847-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $23.00

About The Book

Published to stellar critical acclaim in hardcover, Kiara Brinkman’s exquisite debut novel about a family in turmoil, as told in the deeply affecting voice of one extraordinary eight-year-old boy, is now in paperback.

All who know young Sebby Lane understand that he is an unusual child in many respects—that he experiences the world around him more vividly than most, a condition that only intensifies after the death of his best friend: his mother. Sebby misses her so acutely that he begins to dream and even relive moments of her life. When Sebby’s father decides to take Sebby to live in the family’s summerhouse, he hopes it will give them both the time and space they need to recover. But Sebby’s father deteriorates in this new isolation, leaving Sebby to come to terms with his mother’s death alone as he wonders if he, too, is meant to share her fate.

In spare and fierce prose buoyed by the life force of its small, fearless narrator, Up High in the Trees introduces an astonishingly fresh and powerful literary voice.

Tags Literary


“A very moving and perfectly convincing evocation of the inner life of an unusual boy. . . . Brinkman’s portrait of Sebby and his family is humane and uncompromising, never maudlin, and, in the end, we root for Sebby as if he were our own.” —Dave Eggers, author of What is the What

“[An] inventive, emotionally arresting debut . . . Sebby Lane will break your heart and delight your soul.” —People

“Like Faulkner’s Benjy (The Sound and the Fury), Sebastian is most unusual for the lyrical intensity of his inner life, and the strongest impression this fine debut leaves is his nicely achieved voice, which is moving without being precious.” —Madison Smart Bell, The New York Times Book Review

“An astonishing debut by a gifted young writer. Up High in the Trees captures, pitch-perfectly, the voice of one autistic nine-year-old boy. That the story is also compelling, beautifully written, humorous, and heartbreaking makes it necessary reading. Sebby Lane is a Little Prince for our times.” —Cristina Garcia, author of Dreaming in Cuban

Up High in the Trees is a hauntingly beautiful debut, a stunner. Kiara Brinkman has masterfully created an enchanting, poignant, and wholly original child narrator out of taut, spooky, electric sentences and elegant, musical concisions. The most remarkable thing is that you don’t, at first, notice the razor-sharp precision of Brinkman’s technique; the book is so vibrant, so alive, it’s as if she’s channeling this nine-year-old boy and his visceral, riveting, often terrifying, depiction of the otherworld that is childhood.” —Maud Casey, author of The Shape of Things to Come

Up High in the Trees is a visceral, heart-wrenching, gorgeous book. What moves me most about Brinkman’s first novel is the voice: it’s pitch-perfect and mesmerizing. With Up High in the Trees Brinkman has created a fully realized, wholly original, and powerfully felt world.” —Alison Smith, author of Name All the Animals

“Told in brief poetic vignettes, the novel moves quickly and episodically, like a series of snapshots from the camera of Sebby’s unique mind.” —Publishers Weekly

“What does come strong and clear . . . is the author’s impressive ability to connect with and portray the myopic grief of a bereft child. . . . A promising debut.” —Kirkus Review

Up High in the Trees by Kiara Brinkman is a moving portrait of upheaval. Told through the narrative voice of an 8 year old boy, the novel explores the immediate impact of loss on a family in New England. Sebby s narration moves between succinct descriptions of the world around him and poetic internal monologues about the loss of his mother. After refusing to go to school, his father takes Sebby to their family cabin to regroup. However, it is this isolation that pushes his father further into his breakdown. Sebby narrates everything with such a simple voice, that it adds so much more horror to the events he witnesses. Brinkman has created a stunning novel about overcoming loss, the ties of family and neighbors and how the memories in our heads can become the only photographs we have left to treasure.” —Becca Krik, Politics & Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse, Washington, D.C.

“The characters in Up High in the Trees linger with the reader long after the book is finished, almost like friends you haven’t seen for awhile and you hope are doing fine. Told in the first person by young autistic Sebby, this is a story of a family that falls apart and comes back together again in unexpected and poignant ways.” —Linda Ramsdall, The Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, VT

“Through the spare narration of 8-year-old Sebby Lane, Kiara Brinkman manages to tell a rich, nuanced story that deeply delves into the adult themes of grief, family ties and friendship. It’s hard not to love Sebby and his wise innocence from the very first page as he tries to cope with his mother’s death.” —Arsen Kashkashian, The Boulder Book Store, Boulder, CO, Book Sense quote

“. . . an arresting balance of delicacy and resiliency. Sebby speaks in a quiet, poetic voice, swollen with sorrow, but pared down to the point of austerity. . . . This is a novel in which the smallest, quietest moments are the most shattering. . . . in Brinkman’s handling, autism becomes an illuminating metaphor for the isolating effects of mourning, and Sebby’s innocent voice speaks for anyone bravely grasping for order and solace amid unspeakable loss.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post

“Could be the most oddly moving debut novel since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” —O Magazine

“Brinkman has chosen the perfect story for a debut. With a mother’s patience, she brings Sebby step by step back into the world of the living.” —Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

“Often poetic and moving . . . Brinkman’s portrait of Sebby . . . is touching.” —Elizabeth Gold, San Francisco Chronicle

“A fairly audacious, difficult, small literary masterpiece.” —KQED.org

“Luminous—and ultimately uplifting.” —Linda Fears, Parents.com

“Sebastian and the other survivors of the Lane family have a vitality that not only holds them all together but also surpasses any received idea about what’s ‘normal.’” —Madison Smartt Bell, The New York Times

“Sebby Lane is an eight-year-old as believable as any child in contemporary literature. . . . The plot is merely a backdrop for the real gem of this novel: Sebby’s somewhat robotic, distant voice that lingers long after the book ends.” —Rachel Aydt, Quest Magazine


A Book Sense Selection
A Borders Original Voices Selection
A Barnes & Noble Discover Selection
Chicago Tribune Favorite Books of 2007



Here it is in my head, right in the place where I keep feeling it and knowing it. Dad knocks on my head like my head is a door. He knocks softly because Dad has big, soft hands. He says my name, Sebby.

Sebby, he says, earth to Sebby.

I come back then, but the things I know stay stuck where they are and I keep knowing them. Dad picks me up and lifts me high so I can reach into the leaves of our tree. Dad tries to hold me up for a long time. His face turns red and a deep sound comes out of his throat, because I’m getting bigger and Dad isn’t so strong. He puts me down.

What is it? Dad asks.

I shrug my shoulders to say, Dad, I don’t know, so he’ll think that it’s all gone now. But it’s here in my head, in the dark place where you hold things and carry them around.

One thing I know is that I’m going to live for a very, very long time.

Mother liked to run in the middle of the night.

She’d wake me up and ask if I wanted to go with her. I nodded, yes. My eyes were sticky. I had to blink a lot to make them stay open.

I held Mother’s hand and we walked to the garage. She put me in my old blue stroller that smelled dirty and cold, like how the garage smelled. I was too big, but I could still fit.

Mother pushed me in fast circles around the block. The houses were dark and quiet. Nothing was moving except for us and we were going so fast.

It rained one time and we stopped under a tree.

The rain dripped off the leaves in big, slow drops.

Are you okay? Mother asked.

I nodded, yes. The rain made my stroller smell dirtier and older. Mother took off her T-shirt and her shorts. Mother was soft white like the glass on a frosty white lightbulb. The rain made her shine.

It feels nice, Mother said. She pushed my stroller and we went fast.

I liked how her feet sounded–tap, tap, tap–clean on the wet sidewalk.

I need to sleep, because my head hurts in the dark spots behind my eyes.

Sebastian, Teacher says.

I can hear Teacher’s feet click-walking closer to me. Click, click, click, closer. She puts her hand on my arm.

Are you okay, Sebastian? Teacher asks.

Behind me, Ryan pinches my back.

Ouch, I say.

The kids are laughing. Katya looks at me. She is my friend.

You’re okay, Teacher tells me.

I close my eyes and Teacher lets me sleep.

The bell’s ringing wakes me up. It’s the end of the day and everyone’s lined up at the door. They push each other outside and run. I stand up to go.

Wait, Teacher says and makes her mouth smile.

She folds a piece of paper and tells me it’s a note to give to Dad. I take it from her.

Okay, bye, I say and leave.

I walk until I’m outside of school and then stop to unfold the paper. The note says:

Dear Mr. Lane,

I’m worried that Sebastian may not be getting a full night of sleep at home. Recently, he’s been dozing off in class. I’ve also noticed him squinting and rubbing his eyes–maybe he needs glasses? As you know, I am so pleased to have Sebastian in my class–I just want to ensure that he’s getting as much as possible out of his school day. Please call me so we can discuss this.

Thank you, Judy Lambert

I don’t want Dad to read the note, so I rip it up and then I let go. The pieces blow all around. They sound like leaves on the sidewalk.

A long time ago, Mother let her papers go in the rainstorm. I followed her outside.

She said, Go back in, you’ll get yourself sick again.

I went in and watched her from the window. She ripped up her papers and let them fly in the wind. When she came back inside, her face was so white and her eyes were staring off far away, not seeing anything.

All your poems, Dad said to her.

Mother said, Sebby, I’m lonely, come sit with me.

So I sat with her and hid my face in her hair. I wanted to bite her because she smelled so good.

The rain stopped and we went out to look. Little wet papers were stuck onto the house. Dad said to help, so I helped Dad peel them off. We found one with a whole word that didn’t get washed off by the rain and Dad said to put it in my pocket, because it was for me.

What does it say? I asked.

Dad said the word said baby.

Reading Group Guide

Prepared by Barbara Putnam

1. How would you describe the voice of Sebby, the narrator? Does he seem troubled, perhaps as a result of the early loss of his mother, or something else? Does his voice sound erratic and unstable to you, or is he particularly alert and sensitive? As you get to know him, is he so different from other bright, strong-minded, lonely eight-year-olds? Would you agree it is a powerful and always honest voice we hear?

2. When does Sebby take responsibility for others’ welfare? Think of his caring for his father’s feet, his aiding Shelly, and nurturing the cat. Other times? On the other hand, Cass, in frustration, accuses him of not thinking of others, when he wanders off or demands a painful artifact from the past. Is he perhaps a mix, like most of us, of the two aspects?

3. Why do you suppose the setting is left vague? We do have clues to the era, from current events discussed. And the settings of home, summer place, school, and playground are described in detail. But where we are is ambiguous. Is it perhaps to leave the story as a kind of fable, with truths for all times? Might the compression of the action in one year, with flashbacks, add to this mythic quality?

4. What do we know about the interior lives of characters other than Sebby? We can deduce attitudes and feelings, but it is all through what filter? Do the family members seem unusually bound to home? Why might that be?

5. What do you recall about food in the book? How is it important for sustaining family life or marking occasions? Often Sebby is plain not hungry. Is this a sign of his sadness? Need for control? When is a time he gobbles joyously? Is it telling that the story ends with a feast?

6. Does Sebby seem to have special dispensation just to be himself? Is he perhaps more privileged, sometimes to his peril, than other eight-year-olds who need to learn protective coloration?

7. Sebby is special, no question. What is it he provides in his near-mythic role, to other people? Challenge? Clarity? If so, what kind?

8. How does Sebby show his willingness to risk as he reaches out to others? Ms. Lambert? Jackson and Shelly? Others?

9. How does Jackson’s mother provide a life line to Sebby? Are you surprised she is as non-judgmental (of both Sebby and his father) as she is?

10. How are we to understand Sebby’s plunge into the water? Is it all impelled by his memory of his mother and her soap owl? Can his need to reconnect with his mother go this far?

11. We know that multicultural writing explores what it feels like to be on the edge or outside. How does this story open out into other kinds of marginality? Are we moved to remember times we have felt “other”? How do stories help us find out who we are?

12. What is the function of Sebby’s letter writing to his teacher? How did you respond to those letters? What do you think they meant to Ms. Lambert? How had Sebby earlier expressed himself in heartfelt notes? Do the letters offer an important counterpoint to the rest of the narration?

13. At one point Dad says, “We still have to be a family” (p. 317). Even though the mother is said to have “left,” how does she provide an enduring legacy?

14. Are you struck that Cass and Leo are truly competent, both at school and at home? Is it their necessity to function without a mother that matures them? Is it their relationship to Sebby? How do they relate to their father?

15. What is the role of world news in the novel? How does Cass particularly try to engage her family in a world beyond their own? Talk about her father’s response at the end when Cass asks, “You know about Somalia?” (p. 293).

16. What are some of the precarious mental states in the book? What are the manifestations? Is there a symbolic connection between hiding under tables and beds and wandering out into the night?

17. Pictures are a central image throughout the book. Cite examples. The grandfather? The mother? Ms. Lambert? The Polaroid camera? How do pictures provide both a solace and a hope for the future for Sebby?

18. How is music important to this family? Are you familiar with the songs that provide a framework of memory for the father–and by extension for his children? Is music actually one of the ways they become a family?

19. How are books central to the lives of these children? The town library is a refuge at times. When? Do you think that Sebby’s love of reading reassures the social worker? What is the father’s connection with books? (see p. 66)

20. When do serious health threats afflict the family? Recall the events imperiling Sebby. And what do Dad’s numb, bloody feet indicate about him? And Sebby’s near frostbite?

21. What does the title mean? (see p. 25). How has Sebby held onto the concept of “up high in the trees”? Could it imply something about Sebby’s special vantage point in the story?

22. Talk about Sebby’s view of time in the tale. When does he want to accelerate it? Slow it down? Retrieve lost time? How does the dark hiding place at the end change from earlier hiding places? How has Sebby’s idea of time evolved?

23. Even though the book often focuses on loss, specific as well as elemental, how is it also about restoration and redemption? How do love and patience, loyalty and courage work their magic?

24. What do you predict for the family in the future?