Nina Armstrong didn’t think much about being biracial until her parents split up. She didn’t think much about her creamy mocha skin and curly brown and red hair. Until her parents decided to divorce, she didn’t really feel the need to “pick a side.” Now that her darker-skinned brother, Jimi, has moved out with their [black] dad and she has stayed living with her [white] mom, though, she is starting to question things much more. Especially with racial tensions in Oakland rising at the same time as her parents’ split, Nina starts to feel like she doesn’t belong anywhere. She begins to feel too black around the white kids and too white around the black kids. Some of her best friends suddenly start to treat her differently, and she can’t seem to coexist peacefully with her mom or her dad. She is also worried about Jimi, who seems to have fallen in with the wrong crowd, but she is worried that seeking help for him will make matters worse, or at least drive him away. The only person she seems to feel a connection with is her great-great-grandmother, Sarah Armstrong — about whom she hadn’t even know until her father shared the manuscript for the book he was writing. As she reads about the lengths to which Sarah went, to learn how to read and to escape slavery, she finds the courage she needs to face her own struggles.
I thought this title was perfect to share right during #BannedBooksWeek, considering Sarah Armstrong’s epiphany that she had become a “feared posession: property that could read.” Modern day activists like Malala Yousafzai are quick to remind us ignorance makes people unable to make educated decisions about their own lives and the world around them. If the masses are kept ignorant, it is easier for the people in power to control them. This book is also a good conversation starter for people who are interested in delving more deeply into the history of race relations in the US and the #BlackLivesMatter movement that is still/currently making headlines.
Hamster is ACTIVE
Hummingbird is HOVERING
Hammerhead is CRUISING
Hanniganimal is UP!
This is the way the story opens, and the method Mel Hannigan uses to track her bipolar disorder. The hamster represents her mind/thinking, the hummingbird represents her energy level, the hammerhead represents her physical health, and the Hanniganimal is how they all come together to form “The Hannigan Animal” (aka Mel). As someone who is only mildly familiar with bipolar disorder and who hasn’t experienced it herself, I thought I would find it difficult to insinuate myself into the mind of a character who was experiencing constant and vast swings between mania and depression. Though Mel’s experiences with Bipolar Disorder were different than my own mental health issues with “Pure O” OCD, though, these analogies helped me to relate better than I expected.
I truly appreciate that more authors are writing books like this to provide readers with a healthy dose of information that contributes to compassion and empathy toward people suffering from mental health disorders. We can’t #EndTheStigma if no one will talk about it! Even better, I like the fact that this book did so without feeling clunky or didactic. One of my favorite characters in this story is Dr. Jordan — a resident at the nursing home at which Mel works (who was a therapist, but is not *her* therapist). He tells it like it is, but he is gentle and diplomatic enough that Mel doesn’t completely shut him out when she is vacillating between moods. This isn’t just a book about Bipolar Disorder, though. It’s also a book about navigating life, love, and friendship through the tumult that is adolescence. After reading and loving both this book and Not If I See You First, I can’t wait to see what will be next from Eric Lindstrom. (I may have to wait a while, though, since this book is not even due for publication until February 2017…)
This book hit a little too close to home… Kinda. It’s not that I know any young people who have dealt with a “Niemann-Pick Type C” diagnosis, but I have had all too much personal experience in knowing and loving people with varying forms of dementia. Both of my father’s parents suffered from Alzheimer’s before they died. My mother’s dad is currently living with Alzheimer’s. And my own father had a ruptured brain aneurysm [nearly] two years ago that has left him with an “unspecified” dementia related to the TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) he sustained from the rupture, several open-brain surgeries, etc. As far as I am concerned, it might as well be Alzheimer’s, but it seems that his doctors don’t want to pigeon-hole him into a specific diagnosis after a TBI. What’s the point of me bringing my personal life into this? Well, I think it speaks to my ability to say whether this book portrays dementia accurately. And, sadly, I think Lara Avery must have some firsthand experience(s) of her own — because she was spot on.
It is, quite frankly, gut-wrenchingly awful to watch a parent or grandparent fall victim to dementia. There are some “good” days, when the person will recognize people, be steady on his/her feet, and generally seem OK. But, then there are the days when your own father doesn’t know who you are, remember where he is, or even recall that he already ate lunch today. It is frustrating and heartbreaking to watch my father [who used to do construction for a living] struggle to stand up from a chair or take a short walk from the living room to the kitchen. The only way I could imagine a worse scenario is if it would happen to one of my children, as it does to Sammie McCoy in this story. Sammie has always been a good kid, gotten good grades, excelled in debate club, and had a plan to go off to NYU after graduation. But, when she starts to suffer from both failing memory and failing health, her entire life plan starts to crumble. This “memory book” is Sammie’s way to record her journey through the end of high school so that “future Sammie” will know the stories even if she can’t remember them. FYI — don’t read this book in public if you’re worried about strangers seeing you cry…
I don’t know how honor students in high school today manage not to have nervous breakdowns on a regular basis. I went to a school that had a fairly good “enrichment” program starting in elementary school and followed that program straight through taking AP level classes in high school. Perhaps it is only because I attended a relatively small school (with a graduating class of just under 100 students), but I never felt any extreme pressure to work the system for the highest possible GPA. We were all encouraged to do our best, to take AP exams to save on time/money in college, to apply for college and scholarships based on our interests, and to also participate in other extra-curricular activities. My classmates and I had the general knowledge that extra-curricular activities could impact our college applications, but we didn’t spend every waking moment calculating which activities would look best on college applications — we just chose the activities that supported our interests. (What a concept!)
Reshma Kapoor is a fictional character, but my experiences in working with teens over the last decade or so have shown me that she is absolutely based on reality… I wasn’t even working with teens who attended super elite schools, and many of them were still beyond stressed about which classes they needed to take and which activities would best round-out their college applications. (Some of them actually started worrying about college in middle school!) In addition to the fact that Reshma attends an über elite and highly competitive school, though, she also faces a lot of pressure from her Asian-American parents who believe that studying and doing well in school are of the utmost importance. For nearly her entire life, she has focused on academic achievement with an end-goal of becoming a doctor. Now that senior year is here and Reshma is *this* close to graduating, she is fully dedicated to keeping her position as valedictorian and getting accepted to Stanford. Especially now that Reshma has a literary agent who is interested in helping her publish a book, she is certain that she has an edge on the competition. If only she wasn’t so lacking in life experience and knew more about “typical” teenagers, she might have an easier time writing that book… So, she’ll just have to make a friend and get a boyfriend to get some plot points. How hard could it possibly be?!?
Nina Barrows doesn’t like to sleep at night. A few hours right before school and then a cat nap during the day is fine, but that is about all she is comfortable with. Why? Because falling asleep gives her the ability to connect with the mind of a serial killer who calls himself the Thief. Nina is familiar with his family, his home, his work, and his methods of stalking and killing his prey. When she was little, Nina tried to tell her mother about her connection with this older boy, but her mother just thought she had an imaginary friend. As she got older, Nina realized that people might simply think she was crazy, so she decided not to talk about it any more. But she wonders whether she might be able to stop him; if there might be some way to use her “power” for good. There are just two problems with that, though… One is that she needs to convince her former best friend, Warren, to help her track down the Thief. And the other, of course, is the fact that she may be putting her own life in danger if she manages to find him.
Warren is not so sure that he believes in this psychic connection, but he admits that there are an awful lot of coincidences and he doesn’t want Nina to go off completely on her own. Nina starts to doubt herself, once Warren has sown some seeds of doubt, but she is insistent on following through to see if this man really is the dangerous sociopath, the Thief, she has seen in her dreams. This psychological thriller has so many twists and turns that it will surely keep you guessing all the way until the end.
Imagine how difficult life would be if your dad walked out when you were still a little kid and your mom is a druggie who keeps ending up in jail. Now, imagine that your younger siblings are in danger of being sent to foster care because you’re only 17 and would need to be at least 18 before you could legally take guardianship. And then, finally, imagine your mom’s sister — your own aunt — won’t take you all in unless you agree to pay her more money than you can actually afford to stay in her tiny, dirty apartment. As horrible as that may seem, it’s pretty much just another day for Michelle. She has been doing the best she can to stay on track for high school graduation and she works as many hours as she can at Taco Bell so that she can take care of her family, but Michelle feels like she is about to reach her breaking point. And that, of course, is when a strange guy walks in during her shift at Taco Bell and informs her that her biological dad, Buck, is dying. Is it too much to hope that Buck, despite having left all those years ago, might be able to help Michelle and her siblings in their time of need? And will the sudden appearance of Tim (the guy at the Taco Bell) and his step-sister Leah (who is actually Michelle’s half-sister) make things better or worse? Only time, and a cross-country road trip, will tell.
Though it may seem like an awful lot to tackle, LaMarche does a fantastic job showing how love and friendship can transcend socio-economic and racial differences. Though this book was rather heartbreaking at times, it also had moments of hilarity, and I found that it left me with an overall feeling of hope.