Review: Hello, Universe

dark cover with a picture of a boy in pit/hole while 3 friends and a dog walk on the earth above.Genre: middle grades contemporary

Release date: March 14, 2017

Synopsis: Hello, Universe is told from the perspectives of four weens: Virgil, Chet, Kaori, and Valencia. Virgil is incredibly shy, possibly socially anxious, and lonely. Between school and home, he feels completely out of place. He’s also subject to intense bullying by Chet, which includes repeated use of the r-word. One day, Virgil goes missing. His friend Kaori (a self-proclaimed psychic) and her new client Valencia go on an adventure to find and rescue their friend.

Disabilities represented: learning disabilities, anxiety, deafness

Warning: The bullying in this book can get very emotionally intense and may be difficult to read, especially if you’ve been the recipient of bullying or feeling outcast due to your disabilities. I had to take repeated breaks during the novel.

Review: This book is an emotional roller coaster, with a lot to digest — but it’s also the kind of book that stays with you long after finishing. Kelly captures the intense feelings of what it means to be alone, of what it feels like to be bullied, of what it feels like to be perennially on the outside, looking in. But she also captures the warmth of her characters (Kaori, especially) and the hope that can come in building even one, true friendship.

One piece that Kelly captures incredibly well is the struggle of having a disability in a family and culture that pushes for “normal”. Valencia is hearing impaired, but has never been taught sign language. She is expected to read lips, which is hard enough — and even harder in a world where people do not accommodate. Little things, like facing the person you’re speaking to, can make the difference, yet so many people do not think to do them (or, worse, actively don’t care). Accommodations are important, both official ones and informal ones that we can do for each other. But it also opens up a discussion about American Sign Language — and why the dominant culture and hearing parents still see ASL as “less than”, as something to be avoided and ignored if any hearing can be captured at all. ASL is language. A valid, important, beautiful language. And more — ASL doesn’t just provide a way to communicate, but it also can be an integral part of connecting to Deaf culture. All of which raises questions about identity-first language, pride, neurodiversity and acceptance — important conversations to be having with our children.

I do recommend reading it with children or students, but I recommend doing so as a read-aloud or buddy read. There’s a lot to unpack, and I think most students would benefit from unpacking it with someone. For example, the use of the r-word in this novel should be unpacked together to discuss why that word is so offensive and painful to disabled communities (on top of the bullying way that it is used). It would also provide a great text for talking about what it means to be a friend and to welcome all into our communities, whether our classrooms or our neighborhoods. Overall, this book really captured my heart — wrung it out — and lingered with me for days… Five stars, and I understand why it won awards.

 

Review: Roll With It

bright blue cover with white text "Roll With It"; a girl in a wheelchair pops a wheelie while spinning a pie on her finger.Genre: Middle Grades Contemporary

Release date: October 1, 2019

Synopsis: Ellie is a young girl with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair to navigate through life. She and her mom move to her grandparents’ small town to help her grandmother care for her grandfather, who has dementia. Ellie also has to navigate new school, new town, and new friends while on the quest to bake the most perfect pie.

Disabilities represented: Ellie has cerebral palsy, and one of her friends is autistic. Her grandfather has dementia.

Warning: some bullying of Bert by classmates, but no graphic descriptions

Disclosure: I received the paperback of Roll With It as a free ARC when I attended BookCon 2019. I also received digital access to the ARC in exchange for my review, which was also shared on both NetGalley and Edelweiss.

Review:

I had a lot of conflicted feelings when reading Roll With It, which is why it’s taken me a week to post this review. I’ll start with what I love: Ellie is a whole person. It seems like something that shouldn’t need to be said, but it does. Too many books featuring characters with disabilities use those characters as props to make friends & family feel good. Ellie is not one of those characters. She is her own person. She has her own dreams and desires. She makes mistakes. She and her friends get in fights. She is a tween girl, living in a complicated situation.

On the flip side, Ellie has a lot of moments where she basically thinks or says “my disability sucks” or when she daydreams of not needing a wheelchair. Those feelings are real. I get that. I remember being a teenager who was different. I didn’t use a wheelchair, but I had my own invisible disabilities that were hard enough. I spent a lot of time trying to fit in. I know this part of the story is very, very real. But I worry that often THIS part of the story is the only part that is portrayed in our media. I worry about where that leaves kids reading about cerebral palsy, possibly for the first time, and how it can lead to pity and ableism.

However, I find that Ellie’s baking and her friendships come together with this piece of the story to balance the narrative. There is “this sucks”, but there is also “I’m Ellie, I have CP, and I am going to live my best life.” There are plenty of moments that make clear that a HUGE part of “this sucks” is other people sucking. Other people not providing accommodations. Other people making assumptions. Other people being jerks. And that’s important, because people need to know that they can do better to build a world inclusive of all. All those feelings of internal conflict, that processing — that’s the most real part of the story for me.

At times, the pieces of the story can feel disjointed, yet all of them are important. They all contribute to that feeling of fullness — to the knowledge that Ellie is… well, Ellie. She is a girl who is struggling with a grandparent who may not be safe at home. She is a girl who is struggling to find her autonomy from her mom, as many tweens and teens do. She is a girl who loves to bake. She is herself, and that’s what makes this book work for me.

One last thought — I understand that people make judgments about people with disabilities based off what they see. They shouldn’t do that. I do think that authors, in general, can do a better job of making this point without the, “But I don’t have an intellectual disability!” line. This pops up in several books about physical disabilities, and really deserves its own post. Because I worry that we accidentally dehumanize people with intellectual disabilities, that we accidentally are saying “but if I did have an intellectual disability”… The reality is that we shouldn’t speak like that or think like that about anyone. Regardless.

Overall: I would recommend for a read-aloud in an elementary school class or for adding to your school library. I think there are really powerful elements that are worth discussing, especially in the friendships that are formed (and the way classmates treat both Ellie & Bert, who is autistic).

Review: OCDaniel

teal book cover with crossed out numbers all over it... the title is written in a black marker font (OCDaniel) over a q-tip character with yellow hair.Genre: middle grades contemporary

Release date: April 12, 2016; this book is probably at your local library!

Synopsis: Daniel is a young teen who is struggling to find his place in the world — to find his friendships, to find his place in class and on his football team, to navigate early romance… Add to all the typical teen self-discovery, he also struggles with high levels of anxiety and needing to complete intricate routines to stave off those fears. And then Daniel meets Sara, who needs his help to solve the mystery of where her father is. Sara, who is honest about her own journey with mental illness.

Disabilities represented: primarily focused on obsessive-compulsive disorder, but also discusses depression, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses

Note: The author has obsessive-compulsive disorder and writes about the autobiographical components of this story in his author’s note at the end of the novel. I’ve included a major spoiler at the end of this review, with a warning if you would like to avoid it.

Overall: 5/5 stars.

Review:

“Then there is only dread—the kind that sits on your back and claws at your head and doesn’t let you see happiness or hope or anything.”

I loved this book. Loved. King captures the internal feelings that come with compulsions so well that you may feel them in your own stomach. He captures the desperation, the feeling different, the confusion when they first begin. The way they cannot, cannot be ignored. He captures it all — but he does so without adding to the shame and stigma that our world so often perpetuates. If anything, over the course of the novel, he slowly peels back that shame that readers may feel as he peels it back from Daniel.

My favorite, though, is Sara… Sara lists her labels with nonchalance, as if they are just part of who she is. Sara, who talks about medication and therapy and how helpful it can be to know who you are. Sara, who shows that you can have mental illness and be brilliant and loving and brilliant. Sara, who shows that true friendship is. Sara takes the novel from a 4 star to a 5 star for me.

The one element that didn’t really hit home for me was Daniel’s short story excerpts. Periodically throughout the novel, we read Daniel’s own writing about a boy who feels alone. I understand the intention behind these pieces, but they really interrupted my reading flow. Others may find that they add to the emotional nuance.

Be sure to read the author’s note at the end. I appreciated King contrasting true OCD with the colloquial “I’m so OCD” that everyone throws around. It’s not the same.

MAJOR spoiler ahead:

One warning — Sara’s dad disappeared because he committed suicide due to depression. It is not idealized or made pretty in the way that a book like Thirteen Reasons Why does. And I don’t think the book should be avoided. I do think parents may want to use that as a conversation starter with their children. While this is especially true if you, like me, parent a child with mental illness, it is something that we can all discuss more with our children. They need to know the early signs of depression, where to go for help, and what to do if they feel like that. Teenage suicide is on the increase, at the highest number it has been in 20 years. We need to be proactive in giving our children the skills and supports that will help decrease their risk.