L. Lee Butler reviews WHEN REASON BREAKS

L. Lee ButlerL. 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.


Cover for WHEN REASON BREAKS

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.

Alex Townsend reviews ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES

Alex TownsendAlex likes to read and think about things. Like wombats. Did you know wombats have upside-down pouches? It’s to keep dirt off their babies while they dig underground. Keep reading, kids. It’s how you learn things!


Cover for ALL THE BRIGHT PLACESI went into All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven with my guard up. No matter how good or bad the book was, I knew a story about depression was likely to trigger my own. No surprise, it did. All the Bright Places is a beautifully written book that is, at times, very difficult to read. I’d like to warn the reader up front that this review will have some pretty big spoilers.

All the Bright Places is about two teens with depression. Violet’s sister died in a car accident the previous year and Violet blames herself for it. Finch has a long history of acting out and having sudden extreme mood swings. It is heavily implied that he is also bi-polar. At the start of the book both teens have suicidal thoughts, but Finch manages to talk Violet off of a ledge and Violet becomes Finch’s new reason for living. From there the story becomes about their budding romance as well as their personal growth. They learn about themselves and each other while exploring the hidden wonders of Indiana.

Violet and Finch are both very well-written and developed characters. It’s interesting to see them evolve and to understand more of their personal histories. It’s poignant, slice-of-life stuff and the John Green comparisons are sure to pop up. As a representation of how it feels to be depressed, All the Bright Places does a great job. I connected with the way Finch needed to find an active reason to stay alive, how he regularly pushed himself to physical exertion to feel life pumping through him, but still couldn’t stop himself from thinking about all the ways people have killed themselves. It’s a great illustration of the contradictions that can fill a person with depression.

However, now we come to the book’s greatest flaw: this is not a book for people with depression. I would absolutely not recommend it for anyone with depression who was looking for representation. The problem, and this is the big spoiler I mentioned, is that one of the protagonists kills himself. I was worried about this for the entire book. I kept flipping ahead and peaking at the last page, knowing what I saw and hoping I was wrong.

Of the two, Finch is the character with the more deep-rooted mental issues. It’s made clear through the book that he’s had suicidal thoughts for years, which hasn’t been made easier by years of bullying in school, an absent mother, and an abusive father. Being with Violet makes things better for a time, but as the book progresses I could see his dark thoughts coming back. In the end, he runs away from home and isn’t heard from for weeks. Finally Violet finds him, drowned in a lake where they’d had a date.

Suicide is a delicate topic to put in any story. Sometimes it’s used for sensationalism and sometimes it’s meant to illustrate poignant tragedy. In a book about depression though, it’s simply an essential element to discuss. Sadly, depression and suicide go together all too often in the real world. Unfortunately, Finch’s suicide is one that is handled poorly, ruining much of the book.

Once Finch dies, I feel that All the Bright Places really shows its true colors. I have seen this novel advertised as a story about teenage depression, but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s a book for people with friends who commit suicide. The author admits at the end that it was an experience she went through herself and the last chunk of the story is all about Violet coping with losing Finch.

In his absence Finch goes from being an interesting, well-rounded character to a manic pixie dream-boy. Prior to killing himself he left all sort of special messages for Violet to find, final love letters to the wonder of their romance. During this section Violet doesn’t question what was going through Finch’s mind or the tragedy of suicide. Instead it’s all about finding the next whimsical message and ultimately giving Violet the strength to move on with her life.

It all left me incredibly sad and angry. Depression is a terrible illness that will regularly make a person believe the worst things about themself. It’s painful and it’s deadly and anyone with it knows that it’s daily struggle to find reasons to stay alive. Yes, there are wonderful people like Finch who lose that battle, but that isn’t the message that teens need to read about. What anyone with depression desperately needs is hope. We need to believe that we can get better, that we can get to a place somehow where we can function without that little voice saying “This would all be easier if you just died.” All the Bright Places does not leave the depressed reader with that hope. Instead it says, “If you die the right way, you can end up being an inspiration to others.”

The book also does an awful job of portraying the means to recovery for depression or any mental illness. In the fashion of any 90’s coming-of-age story, Violet and Finch both grow and evolve entirely through talking to each other, whimsical adventures, and abstract philosophy. While those things might help some people, things like therapy and medication are often essential. In All the Bright Places both standard treatment methods are shown in a very negative light. Therapists are well-meaning adults who don’t really understand at best, or at worst will put in minimal effort to try and get the depressed kid back in line. At one point Violet finds Finch living in his bedroom closet and suggests therapy to him, only to have him run away. That winds up being the last time she sees him. She partially blames herself for his death because she pushed him to seek help.

The only mention of medication comes when Finch drops in on a suicidal teens support group and sees several kids with “the dull, vacant look of people on drugs”. No one explains the benefits of antidepressants. Instead any hint of medical treatment is treated with disgust and outdated ideas. Finch says that medication will take away who you are or that or a medical label like “bipolar” will only reduce you to a crazy case-study. This notion is never refuted.

It’s painful because the writing and the characters are wonderfully well-crafted, but if you’re looking for a book about depression I’d pass on this one. The demonization of proper treatment, the presence of possibly preventable suicide, and the sudden transformation of Finch into a manic pixie dream-boy all weigh the story down too much. Save yourself the heartache and read something with a bit more hope.

Corinne Duyvis: Autism, ADD, and Depression, a.k.a. Bad School Experiences 101

Corinne DuyvisCorinne Duyvis is a lifelong Amsterdammer and former portrait artist now in the business of writing about superpowered teenagers.  In her free time, Corinne studies Dutch Sign Language, finds creative ways of hurting people via brutal martial arts, and gets her geek on whenever possible. She also sleeps an inordinate amount. Find her on Twitter.

Her debut YA fantasy novel Otherbound (Amulet/Abrams, 2014) is about a boy who’s spent ten years involuntarily witnessing the life of a mute servant from another world every time he blinks–and what happens when they discover they can communicate.


I often see writers focusing on the social aspects of autism in high school, which I think is awesome and important. But for me, although I was a mess, socially speaking, the issue of schoolwork was far graver.

In this post, I’ll recount my high school experiences (in embarrassing detail) in the hopes it may shed a light on the kinds of problems autistic characters may be likely to encounter in school–both the practical issues and the emotional ones.

I entered high school at the age of eleven, one year earlier than usual, due to being picked on in grade school. I was instantly faced with two problems.

The first problem: one boy decided I made a great target. The rest of the class followed. I was consistently picked on throughout the entire first year. After that first year, a teacher cracked down on the class like a goddamn superhero, and I was no longer picked on. Still, I resigned myself to being a permanent outsider; I barely had friends, and though I would hang out with one or two people during school, I never met up with anyone outside of school hours. In retrospect, I was far too stuck in my other problems for my social skills to develop normally.

See, the second problem was that schoolwork had been a breeze all my life. Now, it no longer was. With upward of ten subjects–expanded to a mind-blowing nineteen later on–I had to learn to study for the first time ever. Notably, my best subjects were the ones that required memorization. Languages? Vocabulary was a snap. For grammar, it depended on how the rules were structured. Memorizing case inflections in Latin? Sure! Memorizing standard rules about sentence order? No problem. Anything more complex and nuanced than that? I crashed.

The same applied to maths: give me a few rules to memorize and I excelled. Enter nuance, and my frustration levels racketed. I’d stare at problems in my textbook and nothing made sense, which frustrated me to tears because I knew I should be able to do this–so why wasn’t it working?

History and geography were just as bad. I had to read long, complex narratives, when at the time I had no earthly idea of how to single out the most important aspects. I would read, and read, and read, and nothing would stick.

This was a big deal for a perfectionist like me. Homework took ten times as long as it ought to. I flailed my way through the first few years with the worst study habits possible: I procrastinated, got distracted, moaned and complained and agonized, never scheduled … Homework was basically my beating my head against a brick wall and wondering I was getting such a headache.

Eventually, even the thought of homework made me burst into tears. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to go to sleep at night knowing that I’d have school first thing in the morning. My bike rides to school were fuzzy with tears, and I had constant thoughts of flinging myself into this canal or in front of that truck. I had panic attacks. One of them was set off by a bad grade for a German test.

In short: I was hella depressed.

But I still got decent grades. I managed.

Up until I entered the fourth year, when a different homework system was introduced. This system promoted independence and discipline. Instead of teachers saying, “Memorize these words by Tuesday, study this maths problem by Wednesday, do all the assignments on pages 78-85 of your Chemistry textbook by Thursday,” we’d get assignments like, “Oh, make sure you’ve completed chapters one through fifteen by January.” We discussed certain topics during class and were left on our own outside of it.

I crashed and burned.

Before, the constant looming deadlines of homework had kept me agitated, frustrated, and without any sort of free time, but they also made sure I got at least some things done. Now, having distant, abstract deadlines, and each subject being nothing but nuance rather than rote memorization … Nothing got done.

My depression got worse. I’d skip class, sitting in the school library and staring at the computer screen in a film of tears, and then I’d have a panic attack because oh god I’m skipping class what am I doing this is not me this is not me. I couldn’t conceive of any sort of future outside of school school school for years to come, and after that, there’d be college college college. I wanted to curl in on myself and never wake up so I’d never, ever have to deal with homework or school or obligations or anything ever again.

A couple months into this new school system, we called it quits. The only classes I attended were English and Art. I spent the rest of the time working in the school cafeteria, since I still had to be on school grounds.

And for the first time in years, I had peace.

After being strung along by an incompetent doctor for a couple of years, we finally gave him the finger and went straight to a psychologist specializing in children’s mental health. We’d read a book about Asperger Syndrome, recognized a lot of symptoms, and explained our suspicions. They tested me. Not long afterward, I received an official diagnosis.

And I was so, so relieved.

It wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t dumb for not succeeding. I wasn’t a failure.

Everything crashed into place. My social skills, or lack thereof. My obsessive focus on certain hobbies, to the exclusion of all else. My dislike of eye contact. My picky eating. My repetitive movements.

And my study skills.

Autistic people, as it turned out, often struggled with vague, abstract deadlines. Autistic people thrived on clear instructions. Autistic people had a hard time moving from one activity to another. Autistic people couldn’t separate the wheat from the chaff when reading narratives.

If we’d known sooner, we could have avoided so many problems. Instead, what we had was a traumatized fourteen-year-old tentatively recovering from depression, a brand-new diagnosis, and a mother determined to find the right place for her daughter. We found one. I enrolled in art school at the age of fifteen. I had barely homework, I filled my days with something I loved, and I flourished.

At twenty-three, I was diagnosed with ADD. Another few pieces of the high school puzzle clicked into place. (Why was I distracted so easily during homework? Why did I zone out during explanations and classes? Why couldn’t I write more than a sentence in my notebook before feeling the urgent need to doodle in the sidelines?)

All in all, the story has a pretty happy ending. I’ve taught myself a lot of the skills I lacked, I’ve embraced my autism, and I’ll have a book on the shelves this June.

But despite that happy ending, over a decade after leaving high school, I still have recurring nightmares of going back. In the dreams, I’m not worried about facing the bullies. I’m not self-conscious about being unpopular, or not knowing how to act. Instead, I’m back in the classroom after all these years. I look at the blackboard or my textbooks, and I panic. I’m back. I don’t understand. I’m behind on everything. I’m never going to be able to catch up. I’m never going to understand.

I’m back, and I’m going to be a failure all over again.

And it’s so odd to see that something that left such lasting scars on me is rarely even mentioned.

Recommended Reading List

Throughout the past month, we’ve discussed a lot of the ways YA/MG lit can get disabilities wrong. It’s important to catalog and analyze all the many different tropes, to bring up specific examples of inaccurate and offensive portrayals, and to educate writers about the truth of living with various disabilities.

However, we also want to celebrate those books and authors that get it right. We asked our contributors to tell us which kidlit books they’ve read that handle disability well. So here’s the “recommended reading” list our contributors came up with!

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (John Green) – Blindness

“Some will disagree with me on this, but I was pleased with the portrayal of Isaac. His experience is different from mine in that he goes blind as a teen, but I thought his reactions and frustrations were very real (even if his video games were not). Isaac isn’t as independent as I would like blind characters to be, but he’s still transitioning and he’s learning at a realistic pace. Also, he is a fully fledged character outside of his disability – he isn’t defined by being blind, even if he might worry that he is. So despite some reservations, I’d recommend this.”

CRAZY (Amy Reed) – Bipolar

“I had some issues with the book but virtually none were due to Amy’s treatment of bipolar disorder. She nails it (as a person with bipolar herself–openly–this isn’t too surprising). It’s complex and ugly and life-swallowing. The letter format shows it from both her perspective and her love interest’s. Really good.”

WILD AWAKE (Hilary T. Smith) – Unspecified, but likely Bipolar

“As Kiri Byrd slowly descends into a manic episode, we have an opportunity to see mental health conditions depicted from the point of view of someone who has them, rather than friends and family, and Smith also brilliantly captures the bright, sharp edges of mania. I’d note that Smith also has a mental health condition (she’s written about it, I don’t know if she’s specified what it is).”

COLIN FISCHER (Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz) – Autism

Colin Fischer is a murder mystery that only Colin and the school bully can solve, but Colin has problems of his own when it comes to reading people’s emotions effectively and navigating the world. Colin Fischer explores some of the experiences of autism authentically (ymmv when it comes to autism depictions and authenticity, of course), and again, features a disabled character as primary narrator instead of object. Zack (full disclosure–Zack is a friend and colleague) is on the autism spectrum disorder, as are his children, and he’s discussed this openly.”

MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD (Francisco X. Stork) – Autism

Marcelo in the Real World explores coming of age for a Latino teen who serves as the primary narrator in a novel about being forced into a series of social and ethical situations that make him extremely comfortable. One of the things I love about this novel is that his struggles with ethics and community are more closely linked to coming of age and maturing as a human than they are with his disability–while Marcelo sometimes struggles to read people in complex situations because he is autistic, this isn’t a story All About Autism.”

KNOWING JOSEPH (Judith Mammay) – Autism, ADHD

“Judith was my crit partner at one time, so I’ve had the honor of reading all her books which center on autism and AD/HD. I think her portrayals are very realistic, both for the person who has the disorders as well as the family members who deal with them and their valid feelings on the matter. This book is written simply, so it has broad appeal – from independent reader to classroom read for teachers to help fellow students gain compassion and understanding.”

THE BOYFRIEND LIST (E. Lockhart) – Anxiety, Panic attacks

“So much to love here: Ruby’s frustration with a lack of diagnosis and her ambivalent feelings about being put on meds, her family’s reaction to her panic attacks, and how they affect her life (they’re the catalyst for why she goes to therapy and starts thinking about the boys in her life) without defining it. They reappear throughout the series. No magic cures here.”

WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON (John Green and David Levithan) – Depression

“This. Just, this: I had no doubt that Tiny thought he got depressed, but that was probably because he had nothing to compare it to. Still, what could I say? that I didn’t just feel depressed – instead, it was like the depression was the core of me, of every part of me, from my mind to my bones? That if he got blue, I got black? That I hated those pills so much because I knew how much I relied on them to live?

No, I couldn’t say any of this because when it all comes down to it, nobody wants to hear it. No matter how much they like you or love you, they don’t want to hear it.'”

“Seconding this recommendation very strongly. The way Will Grayson talks about experiences of depression is both painful to read because it feels so true, and fantastically expressive.”

LOVELY, DARK, AND DEEP (Amy McNamara) – Depression

“Wren Wells wants to hide herself away in the wake of a horrific car accident, and she’s almost dragged under by the strength of her own depression. Lovely, Dark and Deep explores not just the experience of situational depression, but the role of therapy and other tools for managing depression without shame or judgement. This is also a fantastically beautifully-written and intense novel, so there’s that too.”