Weekend Pick for September 30, 2022
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This week we get an BONUS weekend pick from Dr. Caitlin Metheny!
Dr. Caitlin Metheny is a lecturer of Literacy Education at the University of Maine. Her work focuses on representations of disability, mental health, and chronic illness in children’s and young adult literature, as well as how to disrupt ableism in ELA education.
Thank you so much for lending us your expertise, Dr. Metheny!
I have often sought out stories that feature a mirror to my experiences, but they are quite difficult to come by unless I am seeking novels that use cancer as a plot prop or end in a terribly traumatic death. Anyone who knows me knows I love John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (as do a lot of you, I’m sure), but it can be difficult to read a novel where the one character who has your type of cancer (Osteosarcoma) dies after an unexpected relapse. And while cancer does remain the number one cause of death by disease amongst young people in the US, it is also important to note that 85% of children diagnosed with cancer will survive.
So where are the novels including this survival?
When I was a teenager and reading every book I could get my hands on, I was desperate for a girl who looked like me. For a girl who had cancer and lived. And it was really hard to come by. So, I wrote one. (n.p.)
As a survivor of the childhood cancer Ewing’s Sarcoma and an amputee, Gardner wrote Brave Enough and Finding Balance to highlight authentic experiences of teens during and after treatment. In Brave Enough, Cason Martin is a prima ballerina whose suspected knee sprain turns into an Ewing’s Sarcoma diagnosis. This novel follows Cason as she is diagnosed, goes through chemotherapy treatments, makes friends with other cancer kids, and experiences a rollercoaster of emotions when she has a career-ending leg amputation. In this novel, we also meet Davis Channing, who is a childhood cancer survivor whose struggles post-treatment have included drug addiction. Davis and Cason’s relationship highlights the importance of a support system, especially one who can directly understand the unique experience of being a cancer kid.
Finding Balance is a companion novel, giving Mari Manos and Jase Ellison, side characters in Brave Enough, their own stories. Whereas Brave Enough highlights the reality of a new diagnosis and the difficulty of treatment, Finding Balance is all about life after treatment. Jase, as a leukemia survivor, looks healthy, hasn’t shared that he is a cancer survivor with his school friends, and only thinks about his past diagnosis twice a year: at his routine checkup and at Camp Chemo. As an amputee, Mari has never been able to hide her cancer survivorship and is frequently judged and stared at by nondisabled others, except when she attends Camp Chemo with other cancer kids. Mari and Jase’s experiences offer an interesting lens on issues of ableism in society, as well as the complicated emotions attached to childhood cancer survivorship.
As a childhood cancer survivor, and someone who faces similar issues of ableism to Mari, I can tell you that these companion novels are an excellent representation of teen cancer and survivorship. They go into great detail about the realities of treatment, and life after treatment, but they also highlight the complicated emotions and familial turmoil that come with this reality. While highlighting the difficulties of treatment and survivorship are important, these two novels also show the brightness that many might not know can exist in a childhood cancer diagnosis, such as developing deep and lifelong bonds with other cancer kids, families, and hospital staff.
I urge you all to read these novels to learn about oft-ignored types of cancers, and to gain a bit of perspective on this unique childhood experience. But I also want to encourage educators to consider offering one or both of these titles in your classrooms. You may not personally know someone who has or had childhood cancer, but diagnoses are so common that there is a good chance there is at least one kid in your community who is experiencing—or soon will experience—childhood cancer. These novels are very character driven and would offer great opportunities for in-depth studies of characterization, as well as offer a new perspective for discussions and novel studies on disability and ableism.
I hope you take the opportunity to check out these novels, and please contact me (Caitlin.firstname.lastname@example.org) if you ever want suggestions on how to incorporate childhood cancer in your classroom!