Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

fish in a tree

4 out of 5 trees.

This is a surprisingly mature and poignant look at living with an undiagnosed learning disability for upper elementary students and lower junior high. Ally is a budding artists who cannot read. She has managed to go undetected for years through a combination of acting out/ distracting the teacher and putting in insanely long nights to get her homework done. Every year she has had to change schools and as the grades keep getting harder, her problem grows worse. She also faces bullying from the local clique of mean girls.

Enter Mr. Daniels. He is a young, fun teacher with a genuine gift for helping his students. He wants to help Ally, but she is more used to teachers humiliating and punishing her than trying to help.

This is a really touching story about how it feels to think you are dumb and unteachable until the right teacher comes along. A lot of the story deals with Ally’s self-esteem and emotions as she goes through school unable to do everything the other students do. The years of hurt have built up and now she does her best to disappear.

Throughout the year Ally starts to come out of her shell. Mr. Daniels notices her creativity and cleverness instead of just focusing on her misbehaviour and bad spelling. She also starts to make friends with a couple of other “misfits” in the classroom. Albert is a genius who has trouble relating to people and gets beaten up on the way home on a daily basis. Keisha has a tendency to stand up to the class bullies and wants to become a professional baker. Together, they tentatively start to rebuild the way they see themselves and their classmates.

I really loved Ally’s character. Hunt does a great job of describing how scary it can be to think that something is wrong with you but be to shy to ask for help, and how important an attentive and caring adult can be to a child. I really enjoyed watching Ally get stronger as she realized she is more than just her inability to read.

I found this book very compelling and would be a great read (or read to) anyone with a learning disability who thinks they have nothing to offer. It also has a great anti-bullying message.

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

challenger deep

4 out of 5 stars.

I was given an ARC of this work.

This review may contain some spoilers.

This was a radical departure from everything else I have ever read of Neal Shusterman’s. Instead of being heavily science fiction, this is the story of a boy, Caden, who is struggling with severe mental illness, probably some sort of combination of schizophrenia and bipolar. Shusterman actually based a lot of the book on his son’s descriptions of his own battle with this type of illness, which gives the work an authenticity it would otherwise lack.

The story bounces between three main realities: what Caden is experiencing in the “real world”, what Caden is experiencing in the plastic white room (his experience of medical treatment), and Caden’s experience of a ship voyaging out to the deepest part of the Mariana Trench.

The ship sequences, as far as I can tell, are a parallel interpretation of Caden’s daily life. Despite being very nonsensical at times, it was an interesting challenge to try and draw parallels between one reality and another.

It is extremely easy to feel sympathy from Caden right from the start. You can really see him struggling with a growing sense of paranoia and panic, and trying to reconcile what he knows is rational with what other centres of his brain are screaming at him. The book comes across as a jumbled mix of different sensory impressions and realities, but that is probably pretty accurate for someone who is outright hallucinating. It is scary and disorienting, so if that is what life is like for someone with schizophrenia, you can really sympathize.

Shusterman’s portrayal of the medical help that Caden receives is balanced between good and bad. Caden’s body and brain are put through the wringer as his psychiatrist struggles to find the right combination of drugs to manage his symptoms and Caden’s stay at a mental health ward of a hospital is tedious and he has to be restrained several times. On the other hand, he is able to make connections with other teens that struggle with the same difficulties and the staff are shown as caring and doing the best they can against illnesses we still do not entirely understand.

This book is pretty heartbreaking in sections, but I really enjoyed it. Mental Illness does not get all the serious attention it deserves in the media, so it is wonderful to see a popular author writing something so sympathetic and, hopefully, accurate about a disorder that is often blamed for criminal violence.

Painless by S.A. Harazin

painless

3 out of 5 stars

I was given an ARC of this book.

I don’t normally read realistic fiction (the lack of dragons and cyborgs really brings me down), but I tend to make an exception for mental (or strange physical) illness. In this case, the protagonist has an extremely rare neural disorder that means he cannot feel pain. He can get emotional pain, but anything physical, like cuts, bruises, broken bones, just do not register. I have heard of these types of disorders before and always found the idea fascinating. Physical pain is such a big part of being physically instantiated that I cannot imagine being without it. This book caught me at once.

On the plus side, the little details David has to go through to keep himself physically in one piece without the usual twinges and pricks that the rest of us rely on to warn us of problems are really interesting. He constantly has to take his own temperature because he cannot feel himself overheating. He has to check himself each morning and night for bruises, cuts and scrapes. He has to remind himself not to chew on his cheeks and lips. I found those snippets of an everyday life with a very rare disease to be very compelling. It puts you in a completely different headspace and makes you realize exactly how much feedback we are used to from our bodies.

The main flaw of the book is that David and Luna (the female friend/ love interest) are not written very well. David does not have much personality aside from his disorder and his need to find his parents. Nothing makes him jump off of the page and compels us to really care about him. Same thing with Luna. She cares about David and is hiding something, but does not seem to have ANY other interests or quirks. Both fall flat.

David’s emotional reactions can also be a little unbelievably boring and insensitive. People die and he seems to not care much. He does cry, but the writing does not actually convey any deep feelings about anything. I did not get upset because the characters did not seem to. It is hard to care if the protagonist doesn’t.

I also found some of the writing confusing. It was linear, but there were jumps in the narrative where it would travel forward in time without really telling you until you were a few paragraphs into the next section, leaving you reading pages extremely confused about what you missed and what happened in the interim and if whether there was a printing mistake that left out a couple of pages. It was jolting.

Overall, comparable to John Green, but without the clever writing and emotional response. The best part of reading the book was honestly thinking about the logistics of a life without pain, not the story itself.