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Book Review: History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

Publisher’s description

history-twoFrom the New York Times bestselling author of More Happy Than Not comes an explosive examination of grief, mental illness, and the devastating consequences of refusing to let go of the past.

When Griffin’s first love and ex-boyfriend, Theo, dies in a drowning accident, his universe implodes. Even though Theo had moved to California for college and started seeing Jackson, Griffin never doubted Theo would come back to him when the time was right. But now, the future he’s been imagining for himself has gone far off course.

To make things worse, the only person who truly understands his heartache is Jackson. But no matter how much they open up to each other, Griffin’s downward spiral continues. He’s losing himself in his obsessive compulsions and destructive choices, and the secrets he’s been keeping are tearing him apart.

If Griffin is ever to rebuild his future, he must first confront his history, every last heartbreaking piece in the puzzle of his life.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

There are not enough positive words in the universe (this one or alternate ones) to convey how I feel about this book. I was torn between burning through it, so I could see what happens, and forcing myself to slow down, so I could be sure to read every single beautiful word. I absolutely loved More Happy Than Not, but I think it’s possible that I love this book more.

 

The novel begins with Griffin gearing up to go to Theo’s funeral. Theo is his ex-boyfriend, one of his best friends, and his first love. In an act of self-sabotage (or self-preservation), Griffin broke up with Theo when he moved to California over a year ago for college, but they’ve remained in each other’s lives. Griffin thinks of Theo as his once and future love. He figures Theo will find his way back to him at some point. That theory is obliterated when Theo drowns. Griffin unravels. Toggling between their history and the present (where Griffin is directly addressing Theo, who he believes is with him even in death and observing him), Griffin fills in every detail of their relationship and everything that happened after they broke up (though it’s a slow reveal).

 

As I read, I kept thinking of that Stevie Smith poem, “Not Waving but Drowning,” specifically the lines “I was much further out than you thought/And not waving but drowning.” I was thinking of it not in the context of what happened to Theo, but what’s happening with Griffin. As we get to learn more of Griffin’s story, both the history and what he’s currently experiencing, we learn that he’s a real mess. He’s keeping a lot back from everyone (including the reader). He’s doing worse than anyone realizes, for so many reasons. Even when it seems like he’s letting people in, coping a little, trying to process and heal, he’s not. And who can blame him?

 

Both the history and the present are riveting, unexpected storylines. Griffin and Theo’s relationship is powerful and complicated, especially once they break up. I loved seeing them get together and watching their close friendship morph into intense first love. They have loving, supportive families. The third member of their squad, Wade, barely blinks when the two start dating—he just doesn’t want to feel like a third wheel with his longtime best friends. When Theo begins to date Jackson while in California, Griffin tries to keep his cool, jealous, but figuring the relationship won’t last. After Theo dies, Griffin has the love and support of his family, Theo’s, and Wade, but it’s through Jackson that Griffin tries to seek solace. Though at first not really excited to get to know Jackson at all, Griffin realizes that he’s really the only person who can understand exactly how he feels. Plus, he believes Theo is watching him, and he thinks Theo would like to see him working so hard to get along with Jackson and to understand what they had.

 

Predictably, growing closer to Jackson and learning more about his time with Theo is agonizing for Griffin. It’s all hard to hear and pretty heartbreaking. Through this entire grieving process, Griffin is growing more and more heartbroken, learning things about Theo that hurt him and avoiding pretty enormous things that need to be dealt with. One of those things is Griffin’s “quirks,” as he thinks of them—really OCD and depression and the whole thinking Theo is currently with him somehow thing. Though surrounded by love and support, Griffin is hellbent on forging his own way through the quagmire of grief.

 

This profoundly devastating, heartbreaking, and brilliantly rendered look at love and grief will captivate readers. An absolute must-read. Bump this to the top of your TBR lists and be ready to not move until you finish it.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781616956929

Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated

Publication date: 01/17/2017

Book Review: Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

Publisher’s description

underNorah has agoraphobia and OCD. When groceries are left on the porch, she can’t step out to get them. Struggling to snag the bags with a stick, she meets Luke. He’s sweet and funny, and he just caught her fishing for groceries. Because of course he did.
Norah can’t leave the house, but can she let someone in? As their friendship grows deeper, Norah realizes Luke deserves a normal girl. One who can lie on the front lawn and look up at the stars. One who isn’t so screwed up.
Readers themselves will fall in love with Norah in this poignant, humorous, and deeply engaging portrait of a teen struggling to find the strength to face her demons.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This book was really a mixed bag for me.

 

We really get to see Norah’s various mental illnesses and how they affect her and her life. We get great, intense descriptions of panic attacks and the urge to harm herself and what it can feel like to have agoraphobia. We see how small her world has become—she has hardly left the house in four years. We see her have multiple therapy sessions in various places. We are right there with Norah in her panic and fear and distress. Gornall’s writing, for the most part, is great. The writing is also funny. Though Norah’s a wreck who is often really caught up in fighting against her own brain, she’s also really self-aware and clever. She’s funny and gives good banter.

 

Norah’s mental illnesses are BAD. They are in no way under control. Yes, she’s in therapy, but often it has to be at her house or in her mom’s car because she can’t get as far as the clinic. Just stepping one toe past her front door is terrifying. She’s unmedicated. She’s hoping to keep depression at bay and often gives in to the urge to harm herself. All of this, and her mother leaves her alone while she travels for work. Really? Yes, she’s 17, but she’s NOT OKAY. She should not be alone. And her mom’s two day trip turns into a week or more when she gets in some mysterious car accident that requires multiple days in the hospital and feels completely unrealistic/never satisfactorily explained. All of this is to say, as a person who both battles mental illness and parents another human with mental illness, I wanted her to be taken better care of. Yelling at her mom for leaving her alone took me out of the book. But, seeing her alone is what makes us really understand how bad her panic attacks and agoraphobia are.

 

Then there’s Luke, the new neighbor boy. At first all Norah can really do is spy on him from the windows. Then they start talking through the door (closed and open). It’s pretty much insta-like. Norah is consumed with thinking about him, considering her appearance (after lots of time not really worrying about it). She forgets therapy appointments because her head is so in the clouds. She feels something small and awake inside of her thanks to him. He adorably slips notes through her front door when she can’t handle talking. She describes him as “10 percent human, 90 percent charisma” and she’s right. He feels too good to be true. It’s not that I don’t think there isn’t a chance that a charming and super understanding boy could fall for a girl who can hardly interact with other humans, but Luke just doesn’t feel real. He’s too good. And, while he doesn’t magically or instantly cure her, it very much does feel like Luke, and love, do save her and speed up her progress in ways that other things can’t. The hopeful ending is necessary, but also feels rather unbelievable.

 

So. Like I said, mixed bag. Here’s the thing: minus the “love will fix you” story line and the worrisome fact that I think Norah needs way more care than she’s getting, this is a good book. It’s well-written. It’s amusing. The clever banter between Norah and Luke and Norah and her mother is good. But I am a hard one to please when it comes to mental health plots. I want to see good work being done in multiple ways. And it IS being done here, but I really felt the story needed more. Norah is VERY UNWELL. You can tell, even without reading Gornall’s author’s note about her own mental health experiences, that she knows what she’s writing about. I really wanted to feel like there was more to Norah than just her mental illness. And, most importantly, I want her to get better because of what she’s doing and for her own sake, not because of a boy. I don’t know that any of these issues were a flaw in the story or writing, necessarily, so much as my own desire for more out of Norah, for more concern over her mental health.

 

All of that said, I hope this book finds an audience because of its vivid and powerful descriptions of what living with mental illness can be like. And while I wanted more out of this book than I got, I really did enjoy the writing and look forward to future books from Gornall. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544736511

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 01/03/2017

#MHYALit: OCD Tales – Reflections on an OCD Sufferer’s Sabbatical Study of YA Novels of Mental Illness

Today for the #MHYALit Discussion we are honored to host librarian Diane Scrofano

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I remember the day my symptoms began. It was during the spring of the eighth grade. It was 1991 in a suburb north of Los Angeles. I had woken up with a foreboding feeling. By the time school was over at 3:10p.m., I couldn’t stop thinking about the admittedly unlikely scenario that one of my schoolmates may have pricked me with a hypodermic needle as we passed one another in the crowded junior high school hallway. Being poked with a needle would certainly cause AIDS.

The symptoms waxed and waned over the years, as they often do. By high school, I opened doors with my sleeves, had peeling skin from over-washing, and avoided getting too close to people in the crowded hallways. Now my fear had morphed from needles to the idea that a strand of my long hair might brush a classmate’s acne-covered face and the bloody contact would result in, of course, AIDS. When I learned to drive, I would change lanes to avoid bicyclists even though they were clearly within the bike lane. I feared the morning commute; Westlake High began at 7:25 a.m. for everyone in those days, and I just knew that the angle of the sun was going to make me crash into something I couldn’t see or run a red light. I claimed “headaches” to get my mom or my aunt to drive me and my brother and cousin to school. It only occasionally worked, though, so I suppose you could say driving to school most mornings was my unwittingly imposed exposure therapy. By senior year, I was spending the first few minutes of first period putting Bandaids on almost all my cuticles because sometimes a little piece of skin pulled there, and so, if I touched anything, I might contract…yup, AIDS.

Luckily (or so I thought), nobody knew me in that first-period economics class in the twelfth grade because it wasn’t one of my usual Honors courses. If anyone noticed my Bandaid ritual, nobody said anything. Nobody said much of anything at any point; in fact, I remained undiagnosed until after college and part of graduate school.

This probably would’ve gone on for who-knows-how-long, if a family member who also suffered the disorder hadn’t finally been diagnosed. Where was it that I found out that persistent fears of having run someone over without realizing it was part of a treatable medical condition? A book, of course.

Several years later, in 2005, I went back to Westlake High School to work as a librarian. I was fresh out of library school and had been newly initiated into the joys of young adult literature. As a teen, I had never read any—Honors courses, you know. One day I noticed on the shelf a novel called Kissing Doorknobs, by Terry Spencer Hesser. While I wouldn’t read it until many years later, I remember reading the back and realizing that OCD (and mental illness in general) was now an acceptable problem to feature in problem novels.

This memory would stick with me over the years as people began to become more aware of mental illness in general. Soon, you could hear “You’re so bipolar!” or “That’s so OCD” called out in casual jest.

By 2010, I was married and wanted a baby. I was a happy, almost-tenured English professor at a community college near my hometown in Ventura County, California. I was a functioning adult. I could certainly manage this disorder better than my teenage self could, and it would certainly be better for my hypothetical baby if I stopped the SSRI that had been helping me for years. It had helped me so much that I didn’t even see a therapist regularly anymore. Despite tapering off the medication gradually, under the care of a psychiatrist, I experienced the notoriously nasty Paxil withdrawal for about six weeks. When the physical symptoms subsided, all my OCD symptoms came rushing back. They plagued me for eighteen miserable months. It felt worse than I remembered, so bad that I made sure not to get pregnant during that time.

A few years after Prozac and therapy had come to the rescue and I had gotten my life back, I realized that I was eligible for sabbatical at my college. Having seen mental illness affect numerous students over the years and still recovering from a recent bout with it myself, I knew almost immediately what the topic of my project would be: young adult fiction of mental illness.

So, in the spring of 2014, contentedly medicated, in therapy, and about six months pregnant, I finally read Kissing Doorknobs. So, I’d like to start my discussion of the OCD-related YA fiction there.

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Published in 1998, Kissing Doorknobs, by Terry Spencer Hesser was the earliest OCD novel I found, and it did have the feel of a problem novel in that problems caused by protagonist Tara’s OCD drove the plot and the right answer at the end of the story was to get help from a professional grown-up. There’s a resource guide at the end of the book so that the teen who recognizes him- or herself in Tara can get help, too.  Despite the didacticism, I enjoyed the novel because the descriptions of OCD symptoms and their consequences were detailed and realistic. For example, Tara becomes so dedicated to her compulsions that she would rather push her friends and family away than interrupt her rituals. Hesser shows how Tara rationalizes her behavior as “for their own good,” as I remember doing. I knew people got frustrated with me, but I convinced myself that performing a compulsion to prevent something bad happening to me or a loved one was more important than that person’s temporary inconvenience or annoyance.

Less relatable was Matt Blackstone’s A Scary Scene from a Scary Movie (2011). On the one hand, main character Rene demonstrates well the domino effect of catastrophic thinking and the inflated sense of responsibility for others that OCD sufferers can have. When you’re convinced that the slightest move can avert a huge crisis, you begin to overestimate the importance of your actions. You might worry that one missed compulsion, something you didn’t do or say will have serious consequences for someone else. My own therapist said that often people with anxiety or OCD are “guardian” personalities. Rene, for example, believes that it’s up to him to stop his English teacher from quitting his job. But while Rene’s thoughts seemed realistic, I thought it was strange that a fourteen-year-old boy would hide in his room wearing a superhero costume. While anxiety or OCD could keep you hiding in your house, I don’t think most sufferers would do so in costume. This seems more of a quirk of Rene in particular than a symptom of OCD.

A male character who I did relate to somewhat was spunky Devon, narrator of Not As Crazy As I Seem, by George Harrar (2003). As someone who is a fan of medication plus therapy as opposed to therapy alone, I loved it when Devon exclaimed, “I should use my mind to control my impulses, but I don’t see how that would work. If I’m not thinking right to begin with, how is thinking going to help me straighten myself out?” (Ch. 6). I have felt the frustration of redirecting my thinking like a good little CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) patient, only to have to use the same technique seconds later when the obsession strikes again. For me, the medication reduces the number of obsessions and reduces the panicked feeling of the obsessions that persist despite medication. In my experience, having fewer symptoms means that when I do get them it’s not so often that I’d be doing thought redirection techniques all day. Devon’s level of insight into his illness isn’t always as high as it might be, though, as he proclaims, “the things I do don’t bother me half as much as they bother other people” (Ch. 10). Devon just wants to be left alone to do his compulsions, a sentiment shared by one of my own loved ones who suffers from OCD. Other people with OCD, however, are very aware that something isn’t right and they yearn for help, like I did. In the end of the novel, we find out that Devon’s OCD was triggered by a trauma. This detail bothered me because often OCD is genetic and not the result of any one horrible incident. For example, OCD seems to run in my family, and my particular case seemed to be triggered by plain old puberty, although I suppose you could argue that puberty is pretty traumatic!

ocd1

Another novel that locates the cause of the characters’ OCD in trauma is Corey Ann Haydu’s OCD Love Story (2013). I suppose that for narrative purposes, it’s more interesting and satisfying if we have an answer, a reason why something dreadful has happened. In this novel, the main character’s symptoms start after she witnesses a violent crime. Her boyfriend works out compulsively because when he was younger he wasn’t strong enough to save his younger sister from drowning. But besides the problematic issue of trauma as the cause of the characters’ OCD, I really enjoyed this novel. In this recent novel, Haydu shows just how various the manifestations of OCD can be, and that makes this book notable compared to the others on OCD. Rather than giving OCD to only the protagonist, Haydu places protagonist Bea in an OCD therapy group with teens whose compulsions include washing, working out, picking at skin, and pulling hair. Main character Bea and her love interest, Beck, have different OCD compulsions that carry different levels of stigma, and that becomes an important factor in negotiating the relationship. Haydu depicts the disease and its treatment and the characters who have it as complex. At over three hundred pages, longer than many other YA books, this novel takes the time to explore the gruesome particulars of Bea’s OCD in depth, which makes them feel authentic and not stereotyped. Exposure and response prevention (ERP) and its ups and downs and the characters’ progress as well as setbacks play a significant role in the plot.

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While Haydu mentions the therapy technique of ERP and the medication Zoloft by name and her characters are both aware of their diagnoses and working on their symptoms, a sharply contrasting situation is presented to us by Matt de la Peña in Ball Don’t Lie (2007). Main character Sticky is the child of a prostitute who committed suicide. He then goes through a series of heartbreaking situations in foster care. As is a common problem for low-income people, Sticky’s obsessive-compulsive disorder is never treated. It is never even diagnosed, and because of that, the term OCD is never used in the book. As far as literary endeavors go, I suppose you can’t fall into the problem novel trap if you don’t even name the problem! Furthermore, this book stands out from other YA novels of mental illness in that the protagonist is the most socioeconomically disadvantaged. Also, though he is white, he is completely immersed in the African-American basketball community in urban Los Angeles. As such, he provides the nearest thing to a step toward cultural diversity in young adult novels of mental illness.

Of course, I’ve tried to keep abreast of new novels of OCD that come out. I recently read Tamara Ireland Stone’s Every Last Word (2015), but I won’t go into that since she’s covered quite well and you can hear from the author herself on the Teen Librarian Toolbox #MHYALit hub page. Another neat thing about the hub page is that, through it, I learned of Jackie Lea Sommers’ work and am eager to read Truest (2015), as I’ve never heard of Solipsism Syndrome, which Sommers said co-occurred with the OCD she herself suffered as a teen. I also look forward to the publication of her new novel, scheduled for 2017, about a character whose OCD is undiagnosed because its symptoms, as in the case of the author, didn’t fit the stereotypes of washing and counting. If you know of additional novels of OCD, I’d love to read them! Please recommend them in the Comments or e-mail me at dscrofano@vcccd.edu. For example, I haven’t come across (and so would like to know about) novels in which the person with OCD isn’t the protagonist; are any novels from the point of view of a child of a parent with OCD or the sibling of a person with OCD?

As a result of my research, I’ve determined some good issues to think about when evaluating (for collection development) or discussing novels of OCD with teens:

  • how the symptoms are portrayed (stereotypical and shallow or nuanced and complex),
  • how the cause is portrayed (nature or nurture or both),
  • to what extent does the story read as a problem novel (a thinly disguised self-help guide) versus an organic, well-developed work of literature,
  • what level of awareness, insight, and access to treatment the character has (does the novel follow a symptoms-crisis-treatment narrative arc or does it start or end with the character in an unusual place on their OCD journey),
  • whether that character wants help or not,
  • and how medication and therapy are presented (are chemical or behavioral solutions or both recommended).

Finally, if you haven’t had enough of my reflections and would like to read more, please see my article in the Winter 2015 issue of Young Adult Library Services at http://yalsdigital.ala.org/i/465799-vol-13-no-2-winter-2015/16. I’ve also put together a sortable-by-category Google Spreadsheet of all the mental illness novels I’ve read so that I can continue gathering and sharing the type of information that was covered by my June 2015 VOYA Booklist on the young adult literature of mental illness. The link to the Google spreadsheet is https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1s8lgGe1WreKapj47MZKooZqCpRlR-FOplr0UyrpNUzc/edit#gid=0.

Meet Our Guest Blogger

Diane Scrofano teaches English at Moorpark College in southern California. She holds an MA in English and an MLIS as well as teaching credentials in English and Library Media Services. Prior to her current position, she has worked as a high school English teacher and a high school librarian. This article is drawn from a recently completed sabbatical project on mental illness in young adult fiction and memoir.

#MHYALit: The Story is Enough: Writing the Books I Needed to Read, a guest post by Jackie Lea Sommers

Today as part of our #MHYALit discussion, we are happy to welcome YA author Jackie Lea Sommers, who discusses solipsism syndrome, OCD, and writing the characters she needed to encounter when she was a teen. 

 

In high school, my friends’ refrain was “Jackie, you think too much!” It was true. Not only was I a dreamer, a writer, and dramatically romantic, I also had undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder that kept a continual civil war going on between me and my own mind for about twenty years. This would venture from time to time into the realms of solipsism syndrome, a type of depersonalization disorder where I would question reality.

 

I was a voracious reader, but I never seemed to encounter myself in any of the books I read. Anne of Green Gables had my overblown romanticism and flowery vocabulary, but she wasn’t traveling down strange, existential paths as a teen.

 

truestI didn’t even know that solipsism syndrome was a real thing until I was in my twenties, at which point I knew I wanted to write about it. In Truest, my first novel, readers encounter a trio of teens—and they are all me. Westlin Beck, the narrator, is a pastor’s daughter trying to navigate faith in an environment where it’s been forced upon her. She loves stories more than anything in the world. Her small-town life is shaken up by Silas Hart, who is a young poet—a “human thesaurus”—who pushes his ideas to their breaking points. His twin sister Laurel has solipsism syndrome; she is deeply wounded and desperate for truth.

 

 

 

These are the characters I needed to meet when I was a teen. To encounter myself would have meant the world to me. Sometimes YA authors are criticized for crafting “unrealistic” teens—expansive vocabulary, sophisticated thought patterns—but when I read those characters I think, “Me, me, me! That was me!” I know there are others.

 

Right now, I’m working on a second novel that will be published summer 2017, a story about a teenager with undiagnosed OCD. It’s been therapeutic to write—and I feel a genuine obligation to usher the main character toward healing. Although his obsessive themes are quite different from mine, the compulsions are very similar. For both of us, OCD is nearly unrecognizable from the way media so often portrays the disorder, and that’s really important to me. Growing up, I had a limited idea of what OCD looked like: a neat freak, most likely, probably someone who washed his or her hands a lot. This tremendously one-dimensional understanding of OCD kept me in slavery for so many years. I’m trying to write the book that I needed to encounter in high school, one where I could have recognized myself.

 

I have to walk a bit of tightrope to keep myself from “preaching” about OCD, but I remind myself that the story is enough. The story is always enough.

 

Meet Jackie Lea Sommers

Jackie Lea Sommers headshot smallJackie Lea Sommers lives and loves and writes in Minnesota, the home Duck Duck Gray Duck and passive-aggressiveness. She’s the 2013 winner of the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult Writing and the communications director for OCD Twin Cities, an affiliate of the International OCD Foundation. TRUEST is her first novel. She writes about creativity and OCD at www.jackieleasommers.com.

 

 

About TRUEST:

A breathtaking debut brings us the unforgettable story of a small-town love, big dreams, and family drama.

Silas Hart has seriously shaken up Westlin Beck’s small-town life. Brand-new to town, Silas is different from the guys in Green Lake. He’s curious, poetic, philosophical, maddening—and really, really cute. But Silas has a sister—and she has a secret. And West has a boyfriend. And life in Green Lake is about to change forever.

Truest is a stunning, addictive debut. Romantic, fun, tender, and satisfying, it asks as many questions as it answers. Perfect for fans of The Fault in Our Stars and Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn’t Have).

HarperCollins, 2015

 

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Book Review: The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

nessPublisher’s description:

A new YA novel from novelist Patrick Ness, author of the Carnegie Medal- and Kate Greenaway Medal-winning A Monster Calls and the critically acclaimed Chaos Walking trilogy, The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a bold and irreverent novel that powerfully reminds us that there are many different types of remarkable.

What if you aren’t the Chosen One? The one who’s supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever the heck this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death?

What if you’re like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Again.

Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life.

Even if your best friend is worshipped by mountain lions.

 

Amanda’s thoughts:

2015 has really delivered some fantastic books. Add this one to my favorites list. I’m pretty much in love with this book, but I’ll try to not just gush on and on. TRY.

 

Here’s how this book is structured: Each chapter begins with a little summary, so we get:

Chapter the first, in which the Messenger of the Immortals arrives in a surprising shape, looking for a permanent Vessel; and after being chased by her through the woods, indie kid Finn meets his final fate.

 

But then the chapter goes on to talk about other stuff entirely–the things that are going on with the people who just live in the town, not the the kids referenced in the chapter setup. Tiny little bits from that storyline that carries through in the chapter descriptions show up in the main story, but from the view of Mikey and friends, who are mostly just witnessing whatever this Immortals business is from afar. It’s a brilliant setup.

 

It’s a month prior to graduation and Mel, Mikey, Henna, and Jared are spending their last few weeks all together before their post-high school lives split them up. Outside of the constant background threat of possible undead masses coming to destroy the town, the kids lead pretty normal lives. Mike is full of anxiety about his friends, his future, and his family. He suffers from OCD and can’t stop getting stuck in repetitive loops. Mel, who’s one year older than her brother Mike, is making up for the year of school she lost while battling anorexia. Henna, the object of Mike’s affection, is not super excited to be heading to a war-torn African country for the summer. And Jared? Well, he’s a little less normal. He’s three-quarters Jewish and one-quarter God. His mother was a half-Goddess. So what exactly is Jared a god of? Cats. Mikey starts to stress out more when Nathan moves to town five weeks before graduation. Henna seems interested in him, much to Mikey’s dismay, and he can’t help but think it’s super suspicious that Nathan’s arrival happens to coincide with a resurgence of supernatural activity.

 

There is a lot to love about this book. The structure is intriguing, the writing is smart and funny, and the characters are incredibly interesting and well-developed. I love how they interact with each other and care for each other. At one point, Mike’s OCD has made him wash his face until it’s raw. Jared dabs some moisturizer on it for him. In Mike’s narration, he says, “Yeah, I know most people would think it weird that two guy friends touch as much as we do, but when you choose your family, you get to choose how it is between you, too. This is how we work. I hope you get to choose your family and I hope it means as much to you as mine does to me.” These friends care deeply for one another (and explore just what exactly might be found in the depth of those feelings, with Mike noting very matter-of-factly that he and Jared have hooked up in the past–“And fine, he and I have messed around a few times growing up together, even though I like girls, even though I like Henna, because a horny teenage boy would do it with a tree trunk if it offered at the right moment….”). Their stories dovetail at times with the story of the indie kids waging war against a potential apocalypse (those poor indie kids, always battling the undead, ghosts, and vampires. At one point, Mike notes there are two more indie kids dead. Henna says, “This is worse than when they were all dying beautifully of cancer.” GOD I LOVE THIS BOOK), but they prove that daily teenage life is just as fraught and dramatic as the lives of The Chosen Ones.

 

Here’s what I want to talk about for the rest of the review: Mental health, therapy, and medication. Friends, I was cheering out loud while reading this. The characters have many frank discussions about these topics and I FINALLY felt like someone really did a great job showing the good that therapy and medication can do. An ongoing conversation many of us have been having is about the worrisome messages some books send regarding mental health and the stigma of diagnosis, treatment, and medication. (You can go back to my piece Mental Health Medications are Not Your Enemy for some more context.) As much as I want to quote every line related to these topics, I’ll just share a few. For background, Mikey has seen a therapist for his OCD and anxiety and been medicated in the past. He’s not currently seeing someone or being treated. Jared finds him endlessly washing his face. He says:

“There’s no shame in therapy, Mike… Or medicine. You shouldn’t have to go through this.”

 

When Mikey finally tells his mother (who is a self-absorbed politician) that he thinks he needs to see a psychiatrist again, that he needs to be medicated, she just says okay and helps him do that. For all of her other failings, she understands he needs help and makes sure he gets it.

 

Mike talks to his therapist about how awful the OCD is, how debilitating the anxiety feels, how he worries that if he can’t break himself out of a loop, the only way to end it will be to kill himself. He says, “I feel like I’m at the bottom of a well. I feel like I’m way down this deep, deep hole and I’m looking up and all there is is this little dot of light and I have to shout at the top of my lungs for anyone to hear me and even when I do, I say the wrong thing or they don’t really listen or they’re just humoring me.” His struggles are very much on the page and he wrestles with what to do to overcome them. His therapist says he’d like to start him back on medication. Mike makes a face.

“… Why are you making that face?”

“Medication.”
“Medication is a … failure?”

“The biggest one. Like I’m so broken, I need medical help.”

“Cancer patients don’t call chemotherapy a failure. Diabetics don’t call insulin a failure.”

His therapist goes on to ask why he feels he’s responsible for his anxiety. During their fantastic discussion, he says to Mike, “Medication will address the anxiety, not get rid of it, but reduce it to a manageable level, maybe even the same level as other people so that—and here’s the key thing—we can talk about it. Make it something you can live with. You still have work to do, but the medication lets you stay alive long enough to do that work.”

As a person with anxiety disorder, as a parent raising a kid in therapy and on medication for anxiety disorder, as someone deeply invested in wanting teenagers to understand that there is help for their depression, or anxiety, or whatever, I applaud these scenes. They never felt preachy or forced. Mikey is honest, Jared is compassionate, the therapist is effective and optimistic.

 

It’s impossible to capture the brilliance of this book in a review, but I’m hoping you’ll go out and pick it up and experience it for yourself. This is the kind of book you finish reading and want to reread again just to savor it. I can’t wait to start recommending this to teens at the library. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062403162

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 10/06/2015

 

 

In the most recent issue of SLJ

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of School Library Journal.

Gr 9 Up—Fig is six years old and spends a lot of time worrying about her mother, Annie. Her mother talks of fairy land, feral dogs lurking in the woods, and the importance of rituals. It is only after her mother attempts suicide that Fig learns the truth: her mother is schizophrenic. The story unfolds over the next 11 years, detailing the many ways Annie’s schizophrenia changes her and affects her family. Through it all, Fig remains determined to save her mother. She begins sacrificing trinkets, thinking this will somehow make her mother get well. She also sacrifices her own needs and creates a Calendar of Ordeals, dictating what she must refrain from each day. The teen exhibits many troubling behaviors and is eventually diagnosed with OCD, but her health is overlooked as the focus remains on her increasingly unwell mother. Fig is often left in the care of her icy grandmother and has no support system. When her uncle catches her cutting herself, she is relieved that someone finally sees her and will hold her accountable, but Fig never stops thinking she can save her mother. This beautifully written story is a painful look at mental illness. An element of fantasy weaves throughout the narrative, with Annie’s tenuous grip on reality and Fig’s magical thinking, and references to fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland abound. This dense, literary tale starts slowly, but builds to become an incredibly haunting story about mental illness and family bonds.