Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Book Review: A Really Awesome Mess by Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin

Just when you thought Egmont Week was over….. one more review from their fall catalog!

The writing pair behind Notes from the Blender, a great bit of realistic fiction about the complications and joys of becoming, through no effort of your own, part of a blended family during high school, is back for another novel with a shared narration.  Emmy and Justin alternate chapters, detailing the daily grind of life at Heartland Academy, a school and treatment facility for teens who are… well, a really awesome mess.

I really enjoyed Notes from the Blender and the interplay between Cook and Halpin’s voices and perspectives.  The same technique is used here, and though the book is definitely enjoyable, I didn’t feel the same “zing” as in their previous collaboration, perhaps because there’s less humor in the subject matter, and perhaps because both characters need to focus inward so much more because of their situations.

Emmy, adopted as a baby from China by a Caucasian American family (who had a biological child just a few months after the adoption was final) struggles with an eating disorder and her feelings of abandonment and otherness, in addition to her anger over an incident of cyberbullying and sexual harassment at her previous school.  Justin claims he wasn’t really trying to kill himself when he took a bunch of Tylenol, but in combination with some inappropriate sexual behavior, the cry for help was heard loud and clear and he lands in Heartland too.

As Emmy and Justin learn the ins and outs of institutional life and get to know their roommates and groupmates, they begin to let down their guard enough to accept help and friendship when it is offered them.  Each finally admits that they have some issues that they need to work on, and begins to see their life before Heartland in a different way.

The cast of supporting characters is certainly interesting, and as you might expect from a book whose peer group of focus is a therapy group, each has a backstory and complexity that is slowly revealed.  There’s a sideplot regarding a pig, which seemed a little contrived and stretched the walls of believability, but certainly broke this book away from the realm of predictable and lightened the mood significantly, buoying it on toward the happy conclusion.

The promise of hope and healing is strong here.  Put this on your list of books for teens with “issues”, recommend it to those who might like other books about teens struggling with mental health issues but might want something a little lighter.  This book is more about the process of understanding that a problem exists than delving deeply into the complexity of one specific disorder as is done in Wintergirls or Cut.  Keep in mind that though there’s lots of talk of sex, there isn’t actually much physical contact at all between the main characters, whose relationship builds slowly after many fits and starts, and progresses in a really mature way with self-awareness and good sense.

Booklist (July 1, 2013) says, “The bawdy, witty, and sarcastic style balances out the intense therapy discourse and the pensive self-reflection found elsewhere in this irreverent take on mental health, recovery, and wellness.” – Jones, Courtney.

A Really Awesome Mess by Tish Cook and Brendan Halpin.  Published July 23 by Egmont USA.  ISBN: 9781606843642.

More on Body Image and Eating Disorders in YA Lit at TLT
Body Image and Eating Disorders
Top 10 teen titles dealing with body image and eating disorders
The Girl in the Fiberglass Corset; a story about scoliosis and eating disorders
Sex Sells, but what are we selling?
Let’s Hear it for the Boys 
Pop Culture and Body Image Issues for Gay Teens, a guest post 
National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: True confessions from a recovering anorexic

Teen Obesity and Body Image:
Every Day by David Levithan, a book review
Butter by Erin Jade Lange, a book review
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, a book review
Skinny by Donna Conner, a review
A Second Opinion: Every Day by David Levithan
10 Titles that deal with Obesity and Body Image (with links to some good articles)
Today is Love Your Body Day
The Effects of Pop Culture on the Body Image of GLBT Teens
Body Image and Weight Loss 
Sex Sells, but what are we selling? Pop culture and body image issues in tweens and teens 
Take a Second Look: Books that encourage teens to look beyond body image 
Abercrombie and Fitch, Brave and Body Image: Part 1 and Part 2   

Siblings? We don’t need no stinkin’ siblings (Family in YA Lit)

The other day an interesting conversation popped up on my Twitter feed, which I then hijacked.  Lindsey Leavitt (@lindsey_leavitt), Jessica Day George (@JessDayGeorge), and Shannon P (@StalkintheBooks) were talking about the way that siblings, and a lack thereof, were depicted in YA Lit.  It really put me in a position to pause and think about diversity in a new way, and challenge my own personal bias.
The Twitter Talk
It all began when I saw a Tweet from Jessica Day George challenging that notion that all siblings fight, which is the trend in ya lit as she sees it.  So we began chatting back and forth about family dynamics.  Where were the families with 3 or more siblings?  Why were siblings always engaged in such hostile relationships?  So I have spent some time these last few days thinking about diversity in ya lit and how that applies to things beyond just race and religion, but to family structures.
Examining Personal Bias

I am an odd bird, both a sibling and an only child.  Although I have a younger brother, my parents divorced when I was in the 5th grade and we were not always raised together.  Throughout all of high school I was a de facto only child, except in the summer.  I have also had step siblings come and go into my life.
For the past ten years, I have worked in a community with a high divorce, poverty, etc. rate.  My teens came to my after school program telling me stories about how they shared a father with that kid over there, but they didn’t really know them.  Several of my teens were being raised in foster homes or by grandparents.  The teens we tended to interact with were those that needed the most help academically, and they seemed to come from the most challenging home situations.
While engaging in this discussion I realized that I didn’t really notice the lack of intact families and siblings, because it wasn’t something that I was looking for.  It was not my personal experience, and so I didn’t recognize the lack of it.  Fast forward to my library today: I see a large number of teens coming in with parents.  It has been such an eye opening experience, and comforting.  It is nice to know that there are still parents involved with their teens.  It is nice to see families succeeding.  Not all of them do, but lots of them do and they are probably under represented in ya lit.
Digging for Facts
This sent me on a quest to dig up some facts about the modern day family structure.  I am, after all, a librarian, I can find this.  My investigation revealed some interesting facts.
The increase in the number of only children you think you see is not in your imagination.  The rate of onlies has doubled.  20% of children are now being raised as only children.
Further digging revealed that the US Census government report indicates that 56% of married households have no children in the home.  Less than 10% have 3 or more children under the age of 18 in the home.  These statistics vary based on age and various other demographics. {www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-14.pdf}
As for sibling relationships, 50% of teens report being a victim of sibling bullying. When we talk about bullying, it is important to remember to include these types of stories.
What’s Happening in YA Lit?
If you read enough YA lit, you know that the trend is to be an only child.  This is not necessarily surprising when you consider another popular ya trend, to get the parents out of the way.  YA lit has a tendency to focus on a finite group of characters and tell a tight story with a narrow, teen centric point of view.  That’s not a bad thing, it represents and works for the target audience.  But if part of our goal in reading is to expand our world view, then we definitely need to see more family dynamics represented.
Lindsey mentioned there was a tendency in ya lit to have older or younger siblings, which I do see a lot in blended families.  Couples come together later in life or second marriages and decide that they want to have a biological child between them.  Also, increasing rates of secondary infertility rates create greater spacing between children, even when they are from the same parents.  There are, in fact, 6 years of age difference between my two girls.  Interestingly enough, there are not a lot of stats that look at age spacing in children.
With a 50% divorce rate, you see an increase, too, in the number of blended families.  There are step siblings, half siblings.  I recall reading in several places that there is also an increase in the number of children and teens that are being raised by grandparents for various reasons.
When we talk about diversity in ya lit, we also need to be talking about the diversity in families represented in ya lit.  Yes, statistically there are a lot of blended and nontraditional families, but we also need to make sure that traditional families are represented.  And for Leavitt, that means including sibling groups of 3 or more.
As for the other part, well – sibling relationships can be complicated things.  That complexity should be reflected as well.  Complicated doesn’t always have to be caustic and unhealthy.
One of my most recent favorite reading experiences was reading 10 Rules for Living with My Sister by Ann Martin with my Tween.  After she was done, she went and got a piece of paper and created her own sister comparison chart (it’s in the book).  It was a great moment. But, of course, this is an MG title.
What’s the Story, Morning Glory?
So I put out the call to the Twitterverse and asked for book recommendations with larger size families that depicted healthy sibling relationships.  The general agreement was that MG Lit does a better job at this then YA Lit.  However, here are a few of the recommendations:
Invincible Summer
Faking Faith
Sean Griswold’s Head
Going Vintage
Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan
The Curseworker Series
The Unbecoming of Maray Dyer
These Things I’ve Done by Gabriel Zevin
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Steifvater
The Mortal Instruments
Summer of Firsts and Last
When You Open Your Eyes
Megan Meade’s Guide to the McGowan Boys
The Key to the Golden Firebird
Born Wicked
My Life Next Door
Personal Effects
Summer My Life Began
Lindsay Leavitt is the author of the soon to be released ya novel Going Vintage.
Jessica Day George is the author of several books for teens, including her newest title Princess of the Silver Woods
Shannon P. is a book blogger who blogs at stalkingthebookshelves.blogspot.com
Please help us! Tell us in the comments your favorite ya books that have healthy depictions of large sibling families.