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When Books Are The Things That Save You, a guest post by Cindy Baldwin

When I was thirteen, my parents drove me to the University of North Carolina pediatric hospital and checked me in. I had a PICC line—a peripherally inserted central catheter—put in my left arm and a host of super-strength antibiotics pumped through it. We didn’t know when I’d be coming home. And, hardest of all for a young teenager who hated sleepovers and was preternaturally anxious, my parents—busy with one-year-old baby triplets at home—could only visit me during the day.

 

The long lonely evenings, the endless nights filled with beeping machines and blood pressure cuffs, were mine to navigate on my own.

 

It wasn’t the first time I was hospitalized. I’d been in and out of the hospital for my first two years of life, nearly dying as an infant until I was finally diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (CF), a life-shortening genetic disease that affects the lungs, pancreas, and other organs. Those stays, though, existed only in the haziest parts of my memory. More recently, I’d been inpatient two years before, when I was eleven—but that stay had ended up being a fluke, less than forty-eight hours long.

 

This, now, was going to be my first real experience with what CF patients call “a clean-out”: a two- to four-week course of intravenous antibiotics to help calm the pneumonia-like lung infections that are CF’s most persistent and intractable symptom. My doctors assured me that after a few days in the hospital I could complete the IVs at home, but they didn’t know how long that would take.

 

I had never in my life felt as alone as I did that first night in the hospital—like my parents, my friends, my whole life, was in another universe; like none of the people I knew or loved could possibly understand what I was experiencing. The hospital bed creaked and groaned every time I shifted. After I’d turned the lights out to try to sleep, I discovered that no matter what I did the room was twilight-bright. No matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to quiet my racing heart, the anxious blood that pounded through my veins.

 

I don’t remember, anymore, exactly how long that stay lasted—less than a week. What I do remember, clear as sunlight almost twenty years later, is the person who made my stay bearable: a young medical student named Neeta. Every evening, after she finished her rounds, she’d come sit by my bed and talk books. Like me, she was an avid reader; like me, she loved Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain chronicles and Madeleine L’Engle. She asked me about the books I was reading during that stay (Joan Aiken’s odd and fantastical Wolves of Willhoughby Chase series). She told me about some of her own favorites—even wrote me a list of recommendations on a notepad.

 

In that whole big, lonely, terrifying hospital, she was the person who made me feel human, like I’d been seen for something more than my disease, something more than the catheter in my arm and the knowledge that these hospital admissions would loom large in my future.

 

where the watermelonsIn my debut novel, Where the Watermelons Grow, my protagonist, Della, also feels isolated and afraid, certain that none of her friends in small-town Maryville, North Carolina, can understand what she’s dealing with as her mother’s schizophrenia worsens. Into Della’s loneliness comes newly-transplanted Miss Lorena, who’s moved to Maryville after being widowed. The first time Della meets Miss Lorena, it’s because Miss Lorena’s son is setting up a Little Free Library-esque book box to serve the town of Maryville, which doesn’t have libraries or bookstores of its own. Miss Lorena gives Della a book of Emily Dickinson’s poems, which ultimately becomes one of the things that helps Della find the strength to accept her life, her family, and her mama for just what they are, recognizing that they can still have value even if they look “different.”

 

As a children’s writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about children like Della, children like I was—kids who feel as though their experiences are so different, so overwhelming, that it creates a membrane of isolation between them and their peers. Kids who, so often, find solace and understanding both in books and in strong, compassionate mentors. These are the children for whom books, authors, librarians, and teachers can have an especially profound impact, showing them that they are not alone in their fear, their hardship, their loneliness.

 

In the past twenty years, like most cystic fibrosis patients, hospitalizations have become a frequent part of my routine; for part of college, it was normal for me to spend about eight weeks a year inpatient. These days, as a busy thirty-something and a mom to a young daughter, the idea of a week in the hospital even sounds like a relief some days. But through almost two decades, the experience of bonding with Neeta over reading during that difficult first hospital stay has stayed with me, a testament to the power of books and friendship to change the heart of a scared thirteen-year-old who could think of few things more terrifying than a night all alone in the hospital.

 

Meet Cindy Baldwin

Cindy BaldwinCindy Baldwin is a fiction writer, essayist, poet, and author of Where the Watermelons Grow (HarperCollins Children’s), her debut middle grade novel. She grew up in North Carolina and still misses the sweet watermelons and warm accents on a daily basis. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of writing the kind of books readers can’t bear to be without. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and daughter, surrounded by tall trees and wild blackberries. Learn more about Cindy at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com.

 

About Where the Watermelons Grow (out today, July 3, 2018)

Fans of The Thing About Jellyfish and A Snicker of Magic will be swept away by Cindy Baldwin’s debut middle grade about a girl coming to terms with her mother’s mental illness.

When twelve-year-old Della Kelly finds her mother furiously digging black seeds from a watermelon in the middle of the night and talking to people who aren’t there, Della worries that it’s happening again—that the sickness that put her mama in the hospital four years ago is back. That her mama is going to be hospitalized for months like she was last time.

With her daddy struggling to save the farm and her mama in denial about what’s happening, it’s up to Della to heal her mama for good. And she knows just how she’ll do it: with a jar of the Bee Lady’s magic honey, which has mended the wounds and woes of Maryville, North Carolina, for generations.

But when the Bee Lady says that the solution might have less to do with fixing Mama’s brain and more to do with healing her own heart, Della must learn that love means accepting her mama just as she is.

Book Review: Flight Season by Marie Marquardt

Publisher’s description

flightFrom Marie Marquardt, the author of Dream Things True and The Radius of Us, comes a story of two teenagers learning what to hold on to, what to let go of, and that sometimes love gets in the way of our plans.

Back when they were still strangers, TJ Carvalho witnessed the only moment in Vivi Flannigan’s life when she lost control entirely. Now, TJ can’t seem to erase that moment from his mind, no matter how hard he tries. Vivi doesn’t remember any of it, but she’s determined to leave it far behind. And she will.

But when Vivi returns home from her first year away at college, her big plans and TJ’s ambition to become a nurse land them both on the heart ward of a university hospital, facing them with a long and painful summer together – three months of glorified babysitting for Ángel, the problem patient on the hall. Sure, Ángel may be suffering from a life-threatening heart infection, but that doesn’t make him any less of a pain.

As it turns out, though, Ángel Solís has a thing or two to teach them about all those big plans, and the incredible moments when love gets in their way.

Written in alternating first person from the perspectives of all three characters, Flight Season is a story about discovering what’s really worth holding onto, learning how to let go of the rest, and that one crazy summer that changes your life forever.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I am always a fan of slightly older YA characters, as we don’t see a ton of them. I was pleased to see that this novel takes place the summer after Vivi’s first year of college, and I bet teen readers will be drawn to that, too.

Vivi graduated high school as valedictorian, with a 4.9 GPA, and headed to Yale. Now, one year later, her life is a mess. She’s on academic probation and desperately needs this summer internship at a university hospital if she has any hope of remaining a student at Yale. Things are not off to an auspicious start, as Vivi realizes she has a “weak constitution” and can’t stand the sight of any bodily fluids or medical procedures. That might complicate her whole plan to become a doctor. She and her mother are staying in Florida at a friend’s beach house. Her mother bills it as a fun change of scenery, something they both need, in light of Vivi’s dad’s recent death. But it’s more than that: since his death, her mother has fallen apart. She hasn’t been paying the bills and they basically have no money left. Suddenly Vivi, who has never wanted for anything, has to come to terms with the reality of their new situation and get a paying job in addition to her internship.

Then there’s the issue of TJ. They work together at the hospital and Vivi finds him both completely frustrating and totally attractive. TJ juggles the hospital with studying to be a nurse and working at his family’s Brazilian restaurant. Circumstances put them together more than they expected to be and make them unable to deny what is unfolding between them.

The third narrator of the story,  Ángel Solis, is a Guatemalan teenager in the hospital with a heart infection. Ángel helps bring TJ and Vivi together, and all three come to learn more about each other, their backgrounds, their differences, and their similarities.

This moving, well-written story examines tough topics like grief, loss, immigration, privilege, and illness. It’s a slow-burn romance, but also a great and lovely look at friendship. Complex, beautiful, heartbreaking, and surprisingly joyful, this enjoyable read successfully presents three narrators who have such standout voices and bring so much to the story and one another’s lives. A great read. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781250107015
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: 02/20/2018

 

Take 5: Teens, illness, and hospitals

Did you know that under the Teen Issues link up there on the menu bar, you can find lots of great posts and book lists organized by issue? Everything from addiction to violence is covered. If you don’t see a topic covered that you think is of interest, please leave a comment, tweet us (Amanda MacGregor @CiteSomething or Karen Jensen @TLT16), or email us at the addresses provided on the About TLT page.

 

Take 5: Teens, illness, and hospitals  (2014 and 2015)

We all know that plenty of books about teens and illness existed before The Fault in Our Stars, and to say that any of these books are like TFioS is being lazy. However, for readers who loved TFioS and are now looking for other books featuring sick teens, they have a lot to choose from. Here are a few recent titles to suggest to these readers. All descriptions of these recently published and forthcoming books from the publisher.

 

 

Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider

ISBN-13: 9780062217165

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 5/26/2015

Summary:

At seventeen, overachieving Lane finds himself at Latham House, a sanatorium for teens suffering from an incurable strain of tuberculosis. Part hospital and part boarding school, Latham is a place of endless rules and confusing rituals, where it’s easier to fail breakfast than it is to flunk French.

There, Lane encounters a girl he knew years ago. Instead of the shy loner he remembers, Sadie has transformed. At Latham, she is sarcastic, fearless, and utterly compelling. Her friends, a group of eccentric troublemakers, fascinate Lane, who has never stepped out of bounds his whole life. And as he gradually becomes one of them, Sadie shows him their secrets: how to steal internet, how to sneak into town, and how to disable the med sensors they must wear at all times.

But there are consequences to having secrets, particularly at Latham House. And as Lane and Sadie begin to fall in love and their group begins to fall sicker, their insular world threatens to come crashing down. Told in alternating points of view, Extraordinary Means is a darkly funny story about doomed friendships, first love, and the rare miracle of second chances.

 

The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley by Shaun David Hutchinson 

ISBN-13: 9781481403108

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Publication date: 1/20/2015

Read my review of this powerful title here

Summary:

A heartbreaking yet uplifting story of grief about a boy who has lost everything, but finds new hope drawing in the shadows of a hospital. Features a thirty-two-page graphic novel.

Andrew Brawley was supposed to die that night, just like the rest of his family.

Now he lives in the hospital, serving food in the cafeteria, hanging out with the nurses, sleeping in a forgotten supply closet. Drew blends in to near invisibility, hiding from his past, his guilt, and those who are trying to find him. His only solace is in the world of the superhero he’s created—Patient F.

Then, one night, Rusty is wheeled into the ER, half his body burned by hateful classmates. Rusty’s agony calls out to Drew like a beacon, pulling them both together though all their pain and grief. In Rusty, Drew sees hope, happiness, and a future for both of them. A future outside of the hospital, and away from their pasts.

But to save Rusty, Drew will have to confront Death, and life will have to get worse before it gets better. And by telling the truth about who he really is, Drew risks destroying any chance of a future.

 

Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling by Lucy Frank

ISBN-13: 9780307979742

Publisher: Random House Children’s Books

Publication date: 8/5/2014

Summary:

This novel-in-verse—at once literary and emotionally gripping—follows the unfolding friendship between two very different teenage girls who share a hospital room and an illness.

Chess, the narrator, is sick, but with what exactly, she isn’t sure. And to make matters worse, she must share a hospital room with Shannon, her polar opposite. Where Chess is polite, Shannon is rude. Where Chess tolerates pain silently, Shannon screams bloody murder. Where Chess seems to be getting slowly better, Shannon seems to be getting worse. How these teenagers become friends, helping each other come to terms with their illness, makes for a dramatic and deeply moving read.

 

Zac & Mia by A.J. Betts 

ISBN-13: 9780544331648

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 9/2/2014

Summary:

“When I was little I believed in Jesus and Santa, spontaneous combustion, and the Loch Ness monster. Now I believe in science, statistics, and antibiotics.” So says seventeen-year-old Zac Meier during a long, grueling leukemia treatment in Perth, Australia. A loud blast of Lady Gaga alerts him to the presence of Mia, the angry, not-at-all-stoic cancer patient in the room next door. Once released, the two near-strangers can’t forget each other, even as they desperately try to resume normal lives. The story of their mysterious connection drives this unflinchingly tough, tender novel told in two voices.

 

 The Last Leaves Falling by Sarah Benwell

ISBN-13: 9781481430654

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers

Publication date: 6/2/2015

Summary:

A teen grapples with ALS and his decision to die in this devastatingly beautiful debut novel infused with the haunting grace of samurai death poetry and the noble importance of friendship.

Abe Sora is going to die, and he’s only seventeen years old. Diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), he’s already lost the use of his legs, which means he can no longer attend school. Seeking a sense of normality, Sora visits teen chat rooms online and finally finds what he’s been longing for: friendship without pity.

As much as he loves his new friends, he can’t ignore what’s ahead. He’s beginning to lose the function of his hands, and soon he’ll become even more of a burden to his mother. Inspired by the death poems of the legendary Japanese warriors known as samurai, Sora makes the decision to leave life on his own terms. And he needs his friends to help him.

 

If you would like to recommend additional titles on this topic, please leave us a comment. We always look forward to hearing what books others value and recommend.