Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Kids Can Handle Big Decisions . . . If the Adults Get Out of the Way (But Also Don’t), a guest post by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

(CW: Assisted suicide.)

First, a million thanks to Teen Librarian Toolbox for hosting me. I appreciate your work so much!

(Important note: this blog post can’t tackle the social and legal issues around assisted suicide. Too much complexity for 900 words. We’re just gonna go with it.)

Lake Superior, Duluth, MN, where WRECK takes place. Photo credit: Kelly Tekler

Lake Superior, Duluth, MN, where WRECK takes place. Photo credit: Kelly Tekler

In Wreck, Tobin has a lot of choices to make—ones most high school juniors don’t generally make, thank goodness. She’s choosing what to do with her future, which is typical, but she also has to choose how to interact with her dad, Steve. Thanks to his ALS, which is complicated by frontotemporal dementia, he’s unpredictable on his best days and impossible on his worst. Is she going to be a crabby teenager, or will she show him compassion (or will she do both, which seems pretty traditional for a teenager, as well as what most humans would do)?

Eventually she also has to choose what to do (and how to feel) when Steve makes decisions about his own death. Steve’s choice is an awful thing for her to face—it’s an awful thing for a grown-up to face—but she legally becomes a criminal when she helps him carry out his wish to be free. That’s a heavy and unnecessary burden for a seventeen-year-old.

I can hear the outraged voices now: she’s too young for such a difficult choice! She can’t make such an adult decision! She has no idea what she’s doing!

Um. No, she’s not. Yes, she can. Yes, she does.

Yes, Tobin is young. No, human brains don’t mature until they’re in their mid-twenties. But Tobin understands a lot about two fundamental parts of being human: she knows about love, and she knows about loss.

Fundamentally, Tobin makes her decision to help her dad out of love, because they have loved each other fiercely for all of Tobin’s life, and she wants him to be out of both physical and mental pain. Her knowledge of loss is more of a mystery to the reader (and to her, really): she doesn’t acknowledge the large loss she’s already suffered, nor that it’s affected her in more ways than she’ll cop to. However, when it comes down to her decision to help Steve, she knows more than most of us because she’s lived with loss for much of her life. She knows she can cope.

Action figures are a part of WRECK, too!

Action figures are a part of WRECK, too!

What carries Tobin through all of her grief—including her decision—is the love of people older than her who help her make these big decisions. She has her great-uncle Paul, who clearly values her (and also understands loss), and she has Ike, a family friend who becomes a brother. Especially with Ike, Tobin can sort things out, feel her feelings, and figure out what’s next.

Tobin is also allowed to make decisions—which isn’t something all teens get to do. She isn’t forced into anything (with the exception of who will be her guardian, once Steve isn’t), and she isn’t sheltered from her dad’s choice. She has the knowledge she needs about the situation, and she responds to Steve out of love and understanding, rather than duty or a forced adherence to convention.

This is one of the ways kids become caring adults—first, they’re influenced by people who model both caring behavior and critical thinking, and second, they’re surrounded by safety. Tobin is safe to explore her thoughts and feelings with Steve, Paul, and Ike, and that safety allows her to come to her empathetic decision.

When I started writing for teens, I committed to giving my protagonists an older person they could rely on, because I had a couple in my high school years—a person who’s not a parent, usually. In Sky, Morgan has her grandma. In Beautiful Music, Gabe has his neighbor John. In Original Fake, Frankie has his boss and idol, Uncle Epic. Tobin has the same thing in Ike and Paul. Teenagers need to see evidence that not all grown-ups are assholes (if they are inclined to think they are), and that there are people interested in what they have to say. Some adults actually do recognize that yeah, teens are learning, but they’re pretty smart to start with.

If Tobin was a real person, she wouldn’t be able to recognize all the implications of her choice right away. A grown-up might not even be able to do that. But I don’t think she’d regret her choice, because she was helping someone she loves be free of pain. Hopefully Real Tobin would also have the support of those who love her, and they’d affirm her decision, even as they were sad about it. I know lots of teens and young adults who’ve been in really tough situations. Those who’ve come through it have been the ones with a circle of caring folks around them. Book Tobin does what she does, even though it will devastate her, because it’s the right thing to do, and because she’s got support.

There’s all the difference in the world between being forced into the fight and walking in with your head held high. Steve chooses. Tobin chooses. We all deserve that right.

Meet Kirstin Cronn-Mills

kirstinKirstin Cronn-Mills writes young adult novels and nonfiction for high school libraries. Her books have received both state and national recognition. She lives in southern Minnesota with her family, where she teaches and wishes she lived closer to Lake Superior.
Find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

About WRECK

wreckSometimes loss has its own timetable.

Set on the shores of Lake Superior, Wreck follows high school junior Tobin Oliver as she navigates her father’s diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

Steve’s life as a paramedic and a runner comes to an abrupt halt just as Tobin is preparing her application for a scholarship to art school. With the help of Steve’s personal care assistant (and family friend) Ike, Tobin attends to both her photography and to Steve as his brain unexpectedly fails right along with his body.

Tobin struggles to find a “normal” life, especially as Steve makes choices about how his own will end, and though she fights hard, Tobin comes to realize that respecting her father’s decision is the ultimate act of love.

Wreck wrecked me. Kirstin Cronn-Mills has a singular way of getting inside characters heads and making their stories come to life. This book will make you cry.” —Bill Konigsberg, award-winning author of The Music of What Happens?

“A provocative, unflinching, and emotionally-complex deep dive into mortality and loss while Tobin and her father grapple with almost unfathomable decisions. A wrenching and empathetic look at the tumultuous waters and seemingly bottomless grief that can interrupt an otherwise placid life.” —Amanda MacGregor, Teen Librarian Toolbox

“This book has heart and empathy as vast and deep as the Great Lake on which it’s set.” —Geoff Herbach, award-winning author of Stupid Fast and Hooper

“Every so often a book comes along that is so sharp, so moving, so real, and so good, you want to press it into everyone’s hands and say, Read this! READ THIS!” —Courtney Summers, author of Cracked Up to Be, on Beautiful Music for Ugly Children

“A kind and satisfyingly executed portrait.” —Kirkus Reviews

ISBN-13: 9781510739031
Publisher: Sky Pony
Publication date: 04/16/2019

See Amanda’s review here

Book Review: Wreck by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

Publisher’s description

wreckSometimes loss has its own timetable.

Set on the shores of Lake Superior, Wreck follows high school junior Tobin Oliver as she navigates her father’s diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

Steve’s life as a paramedic and a runner comes to an abrupt halt just as Tobin is preparing her application for a scholarship to art school. With the help of Steve’s personal care assistant (and family friend) Ike, Tobin attends to both her photography and to Steve as his brain unexpectedly fails right along with his body.

Tobin struggles to find a “normal” life, especially as Steve makes choices about how his own will end, and though she fights hard, Tobin comes to realize that respecting her father’s decision is the ultimate act of love.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Full disclosure: Kirstin is my friend and I blurbed this book. For the tl;dr version of this review, here’s my blurb:

 

Kirstin Cronn-Mills takes readers on a provocative, unflinching, and emotionally-complex deep dive into mortality and loss while Tobin and her father grapple with almost unfathomable decisions. A wrenching and empathetic look at the tumultuous waters and seemingly bottomless grief that can interrupt an otherwise placid life.

 

When Tobin’s father, Steve, is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), everything changes. ALS is a progressive, degenerative disease. While some things may slow the progression of the disease, there is no cure. ALS involves paralysis, eventually affecting breathing and swallowing. It’s junior year and Tobin should be hanging out with her few friends, preparing her photography portfolio for scholarships for art school, working at her aunt’s thrift shop down in Canal Park in Duluth, and just going about life as she has come to know it. But the diagnosis throws everything into disarray. Steve’s disease is rapidly changing his body and his brain. Ike, a family friend and former Army medic, moves in to be Steve’s personal care assistant. Tobin’s mom took off years ago, so it’s really always just been Tobin and her dad. They know that before long, Steve will die, leaving Tobin in the care of her aunt until she’s no longer a minor, then on her own.

 

The question becomes what do you do in the time between getting a devastating and terminal diagnosis and actually dying? For Steve, he continues to socialize, help work on the marathon committee, and writes a book of advice to leave behind for Tobin. For Tobin, she tries to bury her heart deep in Lake Superior, which feels like the only way she can keep going and cope with this horrible situation. To complicate matters further, there’s a box in their house that’s haunting her. Inside that innocuous-looking box is pentobarbital, a barbiturate that Steve intends to take a high dose of to end his life, on his terms, when the time is right. And if he’s physically unable to do so on his own, he’s asked Tobin to be the one to administer the medicine.

 

Yep. Oof.

 

For both Tobin and her father, their lives are nothing like what they had imagined them to be like. The grief that comes with accepting this diagnosis and Steve’s eventual death is heart-wrenching. Having lost my own father very suddenly in a car accident, I don’t know if there is a “good” way to have a parent die—unexpectedly, where you have no time to prepare, or slowly, where you have lots of time to anticipate and watch someone ail. I think it’s terrible no matter what the circumstance. For Steve, his personality changes are ROUGH. He vacillates between loving and his usual self to angry, mean, hateful, and uncontrolled. It goes with the territory with ALS, but that doesn’t make it easy for Tobin to experience or easy to read. No matter how hard Tobin tries to protect her heart, she can’t. The grief, the waiting, the unpredictability, the potential to have to help her father die—it’s all too much. Trying to have no feelings about something that causes BIG feelings is impossible. We know where this story is going and how it will end. It is an unrelentingly sad plot, punctuated by brief moments of joy, whimsy, and always by plenty of love. 

 

Undoubtedly, the narrative of death with dignity–that is, the right for terminally ill people to die on their own terms—will create passionate feelings about this book and possibly some controversy. That said, the plot makes it clear why this can be a compassionate act, why someone would choose this option. Steve and Tobin’s story is filled with lots of nuance, empathy, support, and love. This is a moving exploration of mortality, family, and impossibly difficult decisions.

 

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781510739031
Publisher: Sky Pony
Publication date: 04/16/2019