All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

18460392Wow.  Rarely has a book so enthralled and gutted me.  This is a HARD book to read, but so necessary, and (if you don’t care about that) so beautiful that it makes the hard things worthwhile.  This is a book about teen suicide, about mental illnesses, and the ways in which people react to “acceptable” mental illnesses versus those that make us uncomfortable.

Violet and Finch meet on top of the school clock tower, both of them considering jumping.   Violet’s sister died in a car accident for which Violet feels responsible, and Finch is climbing towards mania with undiagnosed bipolar disorder.  They find understanding, joy, and love with each other, and their romance is really unique and cute and all the things a fictional romance should be.  But that is not the point of this book.

The point is how the rest of the world treat Violet and Finch.  Violet gets passes from teachers, fellow students bend over backwards to regain her friendship, and her parents are willing to slowly love her back to health.  Her depression is understood and therefore “deserved.”  Finch, on the other hand, is tolerated by teachers, bullied by students, and beaten and/or neglected by his parents.  No one knows how to understand his mood swings (and neither does he), so they replace understanding with intolerance.

And even though this is the “theme” of the book and it’s so important, there are so many other beautiful things happening!  I’m from Illinois, and I had the same feelings of “this place is the most boring place on the planet” as Finch and Violet do about Indiana.  So it was so fun to read about them exploring their state and finding magical, silly, and beautiful places to visit and enjoy.

I also really loved all the Deep, Important conversations Finch and Violet have about life, growing up, and struggling.  This is one of the things I love most about YA books – they capture the overwhelming sensation of first realizing life is not fair and trying to find some kind of control over everything.  I loved the scene where Finch and Violet sit in a closet, writing words and phrases on post-it notes, ripping up the ugly words and sticking the good ones to the wall.

Although this is far from a feel-good book, I did finish it feeling hopeful and encouraged.  All the Bright Places went to some REALLY dark places, and I love it for that.  Life is full of darkness, and it is so important to have books like this one that are willing to shine a light on that darkness so that we can understand it better.  Because of that, hopefully, we can make the darkness a little more tolerable for those who are struggling to find the light.   Continue reading

Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern

I have mixed feelings about this book.  On the one hand, I really liked the juxtaposition between physical and mental disorders.  I liked that both were treated with respect and acknowledged the unfair stigmas attached to each.  And I liked that the romance felt genuine and earned–it’s tricky to have a relationship develop between an able-bodied person and a disabled person and never once think there is a power imbalance.

On the other hand, the pace of the book felt very strange.  Sometimes we got to see all day, every day.  Other times we skipped months at a time.  Sometimes the scenes evenly alternated between Amy and Matthew, and sometimes they skewed toward one more than the other.  The plot seemed to be following a particular route, but then there was a twist.  Which is cool!  But the last third of the book felt uneven and disjointed.  Subplots were tacked on without the development they might have been given earlier in the book.

Still, I’m glad this book exists.  It’s always good to read about the stories of people that, sad to say, I often ignore.  It’s a good reminder that people have so much more going on inside of them than we can ever know from the outside.  And–this is so basic, but so important–it’s great to have books that loudly and confidently remind readers that nonverbal men and women in wheelchairs are people too.  I mean, of course they are.  But how often do we get to read about their story?   Continue reading