Today’s review is a bit different from the usual fare here on Kid Lit Reviews. I received a young adult book last year, which I do not review, because I firmly believe YA does not mix well with picture books and middle grade fare. I set it aside. Last night, needing a break from reading kid’s books and packing boxes, I picked up that book, simply titled Crazy. Crazy is Linda Vigen Phillips debut into children’s lit. Written in verse, the story is a fast read. The story shines a light on mental illness and, though set in the 1960s, is every bit as relevant today as it was then. Crazy moved me and I hope it moves you.
“Laura is a typical fifteen-year-old growing up in the 1960s, navigating her way through classes, friendships, and even a new romance. But she’s carrying around a secret: her mother is suffering from a mental illness. No one in Laura’s family will talk about her mother’s past hospitalizations or increasingly erratic behavior, and Laura is confused and frightened. Laura finds some solace in art, but when her mother, also an artist, suffers a breakdown, Laura fears that she will follow in her mother’s footsteps. Left without a refuge, can she find the courage to face what scares her most?” [book cover]
15-year-old Laura’s mother suffers from bipolar disorder and the family suffers right along with her, as most often happens. The author took parts of her own life, apparently having a mother who also suffered from mental illness. In the sixties, where the story takes place, mental illness carried much stigma so families kept this very secret. A lot of effort went into hiding the ailment from others. Kids never brought friends home to play or for sleepovers. If the family member was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, the family’s secret keeping went into high alert.
Now this may sound crazy in itself, but people outside the family secret did treat kids and adults with a mentally ill family member differently—poorly, often as if the craziness could rub off the family and onto them. According to ASH Clinical News many people did not consider mental illness a medical disorder. Instead, mental illness was a problem of attitude, disposition, and a weakness of the will. Thus, mentally ill people could cure themselves by changing their attitude and their disposition by just acting normal. “If they would just do this or do that, they would be fine in no time,” was the basic attitude of most people.
The mother was a brilliant artist when younger, but gave it up. Laura encourages her mother to paint again, thinking it might help her mother regain her sense of self and thus act more normal. Instead, her mother has a “nervous breakdown.” Now Laura blames herself because she encouraged her mother to paint and, in her mind, the act of painting again caused her mother to collapse. Being a gifted artist in her own right, Laura is terrified that she will tumble into the same black hole her mother has. At one point, Laura even believes she is on her way, and in great fear and despair, refuses to paint, despite a contest deadline looming near.
“If you’ve ever been there
when a lightbulb gets real bright
just before it blows out,
then you know what it was like
around here when things got extremely crazy,
right before they shipped Mama off
to the nut house.
“It’s all my fault
she take up painting again.
That’s what she was doing
that day I came home
to such a mess.
She was trying to paint on canvas,
well, maybe she just forgot
how to do it
and it frustrated her real bad.
I could see she was beside herself
“I never should have suggested it.
“Maybe that’s why she put her hand
on the hot stove last night
and didn’t even smell
the burning flesh.
Now on top of her craziness
she has a bandaged hand.”
The problem in the sixties, as it was in the fifties, and every decade past, was a lack of information. Even today, though much enlightened, some still attach a stigma to mental illness. Books like Crazy help change these views by looking to the next generation. Laura, having been kept in the dark by her family (Laura is not old enough to understand), knows little about her mother’s illness. She understands mom is crazy, as she lives with the craziness each day. Laura watches her mother sit in a chair all day, staring at nothing in particular and worrying about everything (JFK’s assassination occurs), then watches her mother in crazed action, with energy that overflows and keeps her moving for days.
Laura gives up her own artistic talent to maintain her sanity, but it does not work. Laura feels herself falling deeper into a hole she cannot comprehend. Despite asking what is specifically going on with her mother, no one will explain. Not understanding, Laura’s mind works herself into her own despair. Overloaded with a sick mother, keeping secrets, and normal teen angst Laura works herself into believing she is beginning the slow descent into craziness. Her father has closed himself off, in his own attempts to deal with an ill wife he dearly loves, so Laura does not get the support she needs from him. Her older sister is busy with her own family, having married young. Laura’s friends are in the dark, though would most likely be a great support system for her, if she was not so afraid to tell them.
Crazy does a great job describing mental illness fifty years ago and an even better job of describing a kid who must live with a mentally ill parent. The writing is easy to read and a fast read, since most of the verse deals with Laura and her thoughts, rather than visual descriptions. It works. I think an advanced middle grader could read Crazy and enjoy the story along with a new understanding of mental illness. Crazy was difficult to put down, even for an hour. I read the 314 pages in one evening. The story is that compelling and that interesting. I needed to know how Laura was going to deal with her mother’s illness. Would she ever return to painting? Could she ever tell her friends? Would Laura really descend into darkness, herself, as she imagines is happening? Will anyone ever speak truthfully and answer Laura’s questions? I just had to know.
Laura tries to protect herself from a mother she does not understand and friends who might abandon her if they knew her secret. I enjoyed this emotionally stirring story. Crazy drew me into the story immediately with the powerful writing. The author does a great job leading the reader down the path she wants them to walk. Laura is a credible character and one in which many kids will see themselves. Laura will have your empathy, but it will take time to understand the other characters’ motives. The story rolls out perfectly. I know this because I have a brother with bipolar disorder. In a group setting, Crazy can easily lead to a great discussion. I recommend Crazy for advanced readers age 12 and up, including adults.
Discussion Guide is HERE.
Learn more about Crazy HERE.
Meet the author, Linda Vigen Phillips, at her website: http://www.lindavigenphillips.com/
Find more picture books at the Eerdmans Books for YR website: http://www.eerdmans.com/YoungReaders/
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers is an imprint of Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co.
CRAZY. Text copyright © 2014 by Linda Vigen Phillips. Copyright © 2014 by publisher, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, Grand Rapids, MI.
Copyright © 2015 by Sue Morris/Kid Lit Reviews. All Rights Reserved
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