Some Kind of Happiness
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
When Finley’s parents need some time alone to work things out – i.e., decide if they are getting a divorce – they send her to Hart House, meticulously kept and ruled over by her paternal grandparents and host to aunts, uncles, and cousins constantly dropping in. The catch is Finley has never met her dad’s side of the family, from whom he has been estranged since he was young for reasons unknown to Finley. Finley hides a secret of her own; she suffers from some sort of mental illness, most likely anxiety and depression though it is never diagnosed in the course of the book. The only thing that keeps her afloat is a notebook in which she writes lists and stories about the Everwood, an imaginary place that becomes much more real when Finley steps into the woods behind Hart House. She and some of her cousins start to assume roles – queen, knight, squires – from Finley’s stories, but there’s another family in those woods. The Bailey boys become the Harts’ playmates, the pirates to their royalty, but they are soon forbidden by the Hart grandparents from seeing each other due to some mysterious family feud. Finley’s mental condition worsens – the family sends her to a therapist – as she rebels against her grandparents while also growing quite close to them. Secrets continue to swirl around an arson, an illness, a divorce, a midnight party, and it all comes to a head on a rainy night in the woods. Can the Hart family and their reputation survive a summer in the Everwood?
I liked the book and it was particularly remarkable for its treatment of Finley’s mental illness. This isn’t a problem novel. Her mental illness is not the plot. It’s a complication to her relationship with her family and herself. Her depression and anxiety is not cured or even truly managed in the end, but in the final chapter she acknowledges it to her therapist and family, mercifully avoiding preachiness or an overly dramatic or didactic ending.
Claire Legrand wrote one of my favorite children’s horror books, and this was nothing like it, which is great! While I would love for her to recreate the creeps from her first novel, it’s nice to read a favorite author who stretches their talent to a variety of genres.
Family drama read-alikes
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds
Where is Caden Bosch? Is he afloat a pirate ship run by a ragtag crew and led by a one-eyed madman and his mutinous one-eyed parrot? Is he laying on the table of an all-white kitchen surrounded by people masquerading as his family? Or is he in the real world where his family, friends, classmates, and even strangers witness his increasing paranoia and deteriorating sense of reality? Maybe he is everywhere at once. This is a story of the descent into mental illness told from the inside, narrated first-person by Caden, except in the few instances that he invites the reader to step into his shoes briefly. The book opens “There are two things you know. One: You were there. Two: You couldn’t have been there.” Chapters alternate settings – some in real life and others in Caden’s alternate reality – in a way that one only occasionally hints at the other, leaving the reader looking for clues as to how they connect until eventually the line between the two begins to blur during Caden’s treatment at a youth psychiatric ward. Suspense builds as it becomes clear in all settings that Caden is headed for the darkest, deepest part – the Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Marianas Trench – of his mind, from which he may never return. Shusterman treats the delicate subject matter with impressive care and honesty. He doesn’t sensationalize or vilify mental illness, the treatment facility or the medical staff, unlike many works of fiction who rely on these devices to create drama. Turns out mental illness and the struggle to regain some kind of normalcy is dramatic enough.
Full disclosure: my dad is a psychiatrist and mental illness runs in my family. So when I read books about mental illness and its treatment, I am a very picky reader. Challenger Deep passed my scrutiny. As I said above, there are no cheap tricks here – no electro-shock treatment (which these days is a totally valid and not very dramatic medical procedure), no rooms with padded walls, no abuse at the hands of the medical staff, and no blaming Caden’s mental state on his high school classmates or anyone else (I’m looking at you, 13 Reasons Why). From his author’s note you can understand his sensitive depiction of Caden’s struggle. He has seen others, including his own son, go through it firsthand. I think it is a beautiful thing that he chose to share that struggle through this book.
Challenger Deep is on the longlist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Unfortunately I haven’t read any of the other books, which I am seriously beating myself up about now, so I don’t know how it compares to the others. We’ll just have to wait and see. The finalists will be announced on October 14 and the gala where they announce the winners is on November 18.
Placebo Junkies by J.C. Carleson
Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Random House Children’s/Knopf Books for Young Readers
Troubled teen Audie and her friends and roommates participate in paid medical trails for a living, often several at a time in a game of medical Russian roulette. One day a research assistant may take a chunk out of her leg; another day she’s taking pills to combat hallucinations; and later that afternoon she might be getting an MRI of her brain while trying to remember any happy memories, of which she has very few. Things seem to be going fine – Audie has good friends, a relatively stable living situation, and is saving up her money for a trip to Patagonia with her cancer-survivor boyfriend Dylan – until unexpected tragedy strikes. As Audie deals with the loss, her world starts to unravel and everything she experiences and thinks she knows is called into question. Her roommates are her friends, or are they? She’s doing these trials voluntarily, right? It’s just the pills that are jumbling her memory…at least she thinks so. And who is the Professor who keeps following her around with a notebook? Placebo Junkies is surreal, tense, and always seems to have something strange going on just offstage, but also addresses a lot of important questions about ethics, at-risk youth, who can be trusted, and how to take control.
I really can’t even write any more about this book. Seriously, the less you know, the better your reading experience will be. I love me a story with a twist, and while I could feel one coming in this book – so many things just seem a little off – there were so many bizarre options, I didn’t know where it would come from until it was right there. Seventeen-year-old Audie is sarcastic, damaged, and foul-mouthed as the narrator with a dark sense of humor. In fact the whole book is incredibly dark, right up until the sad and dramatic end. OK, that’s enough information. Just go read this book already!
Going Bovine by Libba Bray
Exit Here by Jason Myers
The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma