Weekend Pick for December 9, 2022
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Edited by Nora Shalaway Carpenter and Rocky Callen
Dr. Susan Densmore- James
The Book Dealer
“These stories will uplift and empower you, break your heart and heal it so it is stronger than before.” (Shalaway Carpenter and Callen)
December is a time for sharing, and I am excited to write about a book I was introduced to during this year’s National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)/ALAN Conference. I was introduced to hundreds of new titles that aligned with the theme of “Pursuing the Light” and even paid the overage charge on luggage to bring books home to my students. Never has a theme been more appropriate, as the last three years have been fraught with many incidences that continue to try us all. Many days, it has been difficult to remain positive, involved, and proactive advocates for our students and other youth in our lives; however, our kids need us more than ever.
As a university professor who teaches both undergraduate and graduate students and a researcher who works in mostly secondary schools, I have noticed so many differences in the “affects” of students of all ages. The trained mental health counselor in me has some theories on what I am witnessing. We have had such stress as humans: COVID, war, polarizing politics, hate crimes (just to name a few, as if that is not enough already!). I try to focus on the positive outcomes. I have learned a lot from authors, artists, students, and colleagues about how to bring light to a dark, transitional time in history. And all of them (I repeat, all of them) involve spending time together in reading, writing, and discussing great books.
One point of change I have noticed about myself over the past three years is this: Not only were my emotions new to me, but I have been reading in a way I have never read before. First, COVID and the loss of my parents devastated me. I found myself reading poetry for the first time due to my short attention span. Anthologies and middle grades novels were moved to the top of the middle/YA piles (even sharing titles with the amazing Ann Patchett, who wrote about the same experience in her reading). There have been some phenomenal collections released over the past few years. And, boy did I ever find an amazing works during the conference!
You know how in an anthology, many times there are a handful of favorite pieces? Maybe a few that might not be your style? Well, Ab(solutely) Normal broke the mold. I was traveling across country to California for the conference, and I could not put the book down. I raced across the airport to my connecting flight in Dallas, just to be able to finish the last piece (the stunningly beautiful story “Almost Beautiful” by one of my new faves, Marcella Pixley). I was sobbing on the plane after finishing the book, and I did something I have never done before: I paid the $15 to download more Pixley books to my Kindle library, which speaks volumes of the impact this author and book had on me.
Starting with the title (which is a discussion starter due to the creative use of parenthesis) to the letter from the editors, this book is the complete package tied up with a beautiful bow of a cover, reminding the reader of the delicate and complicated beauty of the human brain. The vulnerability shown by the editors in the introduction sets the stage for an award-winning and amazingly diverse group of rock-star authors: Mercedes Angel Acosta, Karen Jialu Bao, James Bird, Rocky Callen, Nora Shalaway Carpenter, Alechia Dow, Patrick Downes, Anna Drury, Nikki Grimes, Val Howlett, Jonathan Lenore Kastin, Sonia Patel, Marcella Pixley, Isabel Quintero, Ebony Stewart, and Francisco X. Stork all have stories that grace the pages of this book.
It is also time for adults to step up and be honest with our youth about mental illness, as half of all mental health disorders appear by age 14 (World Health Organization). These stories show individuals living and thriving in a world that is often not kind to those struggling. We see powerful voices created by these authors enjoying experiences like falling in love, growing stronger through their vulnerabilities, and making strong connections with others to live life to its fullest. Mental health is not a weakness; it takes strength and bravery to give it the attention needed to thrive. Giving students this lens of viewing mental illness is the greatest gift (and possibly life-saving solutions) we can give them.
As a 55-year-old adult, every person I know has had issues with mental health (or at least had a close family member who has struggled). With the help of a family counselor, I, too, survived the darkest time in my life. For this, I am grateful. I wish I had had this book during that time in life, but I am so grateful my teenaged daughter and her generation will have it as a comfort and solid resource. At the end of each piece, there is an author’s note written which is a vulnerable, truthful letter to the reader. Attaching a personal piece of writing to each story reminds us we are not alone in life. We all have struggles, and these authors are truly my heroes for sharing this fact; they speak their truths to unselfishly help our youth. This is my definition of bravery.
The editors give many pages of resources, including general, cited information about mental illness, and then, most importantly, provide us with accurate mental health literacy terms and reputable places to learn more. It truly is a one-stop wonder book for the classroom and our homes, incorporating stories, both fictional and personal, and a toolkit of mental health resources. The bonus? (Not that we need another bonus with this book). Once our youth read these stories, it will open up a whole new world of reading by adding these authors to their “must read” lists!
My sincere thanks to Nora Shalaway and Rocky Callen for creating this anthology. I have been introduced to some new voices in the YA world and learned more about some of my “old” favorites. Thank you for reminding us we are not alone. We are not just ONE-dimensional beings. We are complicated, beautiful creatures who, with the help of one another, can endure the toughest times in life.
National Institute of Mental Health, “Mental Illness,” Updated January 2022. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness
Pew Research Center, “Most U.S. Teens See Anxiety and Depression as a Major Problem Among their Peers,” https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/02/20/most-u-s-teens-see-anxiety-and-depression-as-a-major-problem-among-their-peers/
World Health Organization, “Adolescent and Youth Adult Health,” January 18, 2021. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health#:~:text=Mental%20health%20determinants,and%20learning%20to%20manage%20emotions.