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L. Lee Butler is a middle school librarian in the DC Public Schools. He’s a pretty typical librarian : likes to read, does crafts, gay. In addition to serving on YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection Committee 2013, he also reviews diverse titles for School Library Journal.
The hook of When Reason Breaks, as presented in the flap copy, is to present two very different girls and tease the reader as to who will attempt suicide. Although that seems crass, showing the parallel journeys of Emily and Elizabeth allows author Cindy L. Rodriguez to explore two different expressions of depression. That either one of them could believably be the girl overdosing at the opening of the book all the way up to the ultimate reveal is the result of the author’s deep understanding of the manifold ways that depression affects people, as well as skillful misdirection.
Elizabeth Davis and Emily Delgado are classmates without much socially between them despite their last names leading them to be seated next to each other in every class. Emily is fresh off a social media debacle that led her politician father to punish her in humiliating ways. Elizabeth has rage and angst fueling her gothy new persona. And both of them will be studying Emily Dickinson in Ms. Diaz’s English class. The novel takes much of its structure and characterization from Dickinson’s poetry, biography, and speculation about her life, but keeps its influences from overwhelming the narrative.
Elizabeth’s depression is the more stereotypical teen girl depression depicted in many novels, with goth fashion decisions, secretive poetry, and violent acting out. Her depression is revealed piecemeal, so it’s not until much later in the book that we see its particular genesis. It is a testament to Rodriguez’s skill as a writer that these often-used character traits do not feel stale, but are part of a character that feels very real. It’s no wonder that Ms. Diaz latches onto her issues before Emily’s, and it is a welcome choice to see a teacher in a YA novel taking appropriate measures to deal with an obviously troubled student. I know I am not the first well-meaning adult reader of YA literature to be (inappropriately) frustrated with the lack of adult presence in the genre, so I am glad to see the depiction of a well-boundaried adult who is there for her students struggling with mental health issues. But Ms. Diaz is not the adult-insert savior of Elizabeth or Emily; she is a realistic but completely inadequate resource just like those I encountered as a depressed teenager.
But the depiction of Emily’s depression is the real jewel in the novel, painfully accurate to the kind of feelings and actions that are less showy than the typical treatment of depression in media. Without a traumatic root, Emily’s depression is an organic thing that dictates her reactions to the normal ups and downs of teenage life, which is a rarity for narrative depictions of depression. Her position as a pretty, popular girl does not save her from her mental illness. As her downward spiral begins, we get a telling glimpse into the way that depressive mindsets not only make everyday struggles difficult, but add guilt on to the struggle.
Emily looked at Mama and Pop and thought about her friends and Kevin. Like Jacob, they all had struggles, but none of them had faced a major tragedy. She watched the news. Compared to others, her life and her problems were pretty ordinary. So why did it all feel like she was in an epic battle? Why did every snarky remark become a festering wound? Why did she always feel like she was pinned to the mat and crushed under their weight? (pages 112-113)
Rather than accepting that every life has struggles, the depressive mind tries to put feelings into false perspective. The internal monologue of “your problems aren’t so bad, cheer up!” can feel like it’s coming from a place of balance, but it’s actually just another facet of depression reflecting back on itself. It’s just as destructive as the more obviously self-hating narratives.
I am particularly grateful for and impressed by the unflinching nature of Chapter 35’s depiction of suicide. The mechanical descriptions of CPR and the ministrations of the paramedics are real and unsentimental. The following chapters, showing the fallout for others and the resistance to treatment, are correct to my recollections of a similar time in my life and what has been related to me by my family and friends. Although it is the climax of the novel, the suicide does not stand as the endpoint of the narrative. It is a turning point, as in real life, when rock bottom or a nearby shock can be a catalyst for change. The narrative shift from the past tense to the present underlines the uncertainty that this change brings.
There is so much to recommend When Reason Breaks that it’s impossible to fit it into this review. From the recognition of the physical symptoms of depression to the way diversity is woven into the characters to the realistic role that social media plays in the lives of our protagonists, this novel is a real accomplishment of characterization. Depression and suicide is not all there is to Emily or Elizabeth, nor is it the only point of the narrative, but they take center stage in an astutely observed way that is wonderful to read.
Mindy Rhiger is a librarian specializing in children’s books. She was born with one arm and has worn a prosthesis since she was a toddler. You can read all about it on her FAQ called Fake Arm 101. Mindy shared more books about being different in an article in Book Links called Just Like You: Helping Young People Understand Disabilities Through Books. She will be serving as a judge on the inaugural Walter Award, which will honor diverse teen fiction in 2015.
When a review copy of Centaur Rising by Jane Yolen landed on my desk, I immediately put in my “to read” pile. Not because I have any particular interest in centaurs. Nor for the name recognition of the author, though I have enjoyed many of Jane Yolen’s previous books. My initial attraction to the book was based on the reference to “birth defects caused by an experimental drug” in the book description on the back cover. How many middle grade novels reference Thalidomide? Centaur Rising is the only one I know of.
Thalidomide, as explained in an author’s note, was an anti-nausea medication taken by pregnant women in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. It was eventually banned when doctors learned it caused birth defects in children. Most middle grade readers aren’t going to know about Thalidomide. It was well before their time, as it was before my time as well. Nonetheless, I knew about it in the late 1980’s when I was a kid because people of a certain generation saw my limb deficiency and immediately connected it to Thalidomide. I regularly had to tell people that I was not a “Thalidomide Baby,” that my congenital limb difference was random. It remains one of many assumptions people often make about me, and I still find myself having to explain that I am not old enough to have been affected by Thalidomide. There is also the fact that it was never approved for use in the United States, and the affected children (adults now) are largely European or Canadian.
In Centaur Rising, Robbie has the typical “Thalidomide Baby” traits. He is described by his sister Ari as she notes how he wouldn’t be able to help if she needed anything when tending to a horse in labor on their farm: “He can’t use his legs, his pelvic bones are missing, his arms are too short, and his hands are like flippers because the fingers and thumbs grew fused together.”
When the foal turns out to be a centaur, the characters have various reactions. The adults are concerned about what people will think. Ari wonders if the creature is magic or a mistake. Robbie connects with the baby centaur immediately. He says that they are both “half something.” Half human, half animal. It sounds harsh, and I suppose it is harsh to read that a child views himself as only part human. But it is true that kids affected by Thalidomide were called “seal children.”
It is worth noting here that a version of Centaur Rising was originally published in the short story collection Half Human. In the story, the character with the birth defects died at birth, and the family names the centaur after that lost child. In the book version, the child and the centaur consider each other brothers. They both feel freakish and need protection from those who would hurt them or exploit them. Robbie’s father represents all villains here as he treats Robbie harshly and wants to cash in on the centaur’s potential as a moneymaker.
The idea that Robbie relates in any way to the centaur isn’t exactly a comfortable idea for Robbie’s family, but by the end of the book everyone in the family has learned something or shifted perspective thanks to Robbie and his relationship with the centaur. This element of the plot came across as didactic to me, and I didn’t think that either Robbie or Kai were fully fleshed out characters, which made the ending in which they begin a charitable organization for kids with disabilities feel somewhat inauthentic.
In the end, Ari learns that the creature was not a mistake at all. He was magical. He transforms her world and perspective in many ways, and by extension, her brother with all of his differences has an inspirational element to his character. I couldn’t help but wish that there was an option other than magic or mistake offered for Robbie and Kai. Perhaps, like me, they might just be different for no reason and with no obligation.
Despite the elements that I saw as didactic or inauthentic, there is a lot that kids will like in this book. Ari is a relatable character, and her story is satisfying. Readers who are drawn to horse novels or realistic fantasies are the most likely to appreciate this gentle, uplifting story. The author’s note offers more information about Thalidomide, horse therapy, and historical language for people with disabilities for those who are interested in further context. Centaur Rising presents opportunity for teachers or other educators to bring up a discussion of preconceived ideas about people who are different as well as give some historical context to the way that our treatment of people with disabilities has changed. There is a lot to talk about in this story, and if the book can start those, often uncomfortable, conversations about how we view people (or creatures) that look different and how they are represented in fiction, I count that as a good thing.