Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Sister Went Crazy

cover image for Stop PretendingSones, Sonya. (1999) Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy. New York, NY: HarperCollins

Plot Summary:

When Cookie’s sister suffers from a mental breakdown and is sent to a hospital to recover, Cookie deals with her confusion, pain, and loss the way so many other 13 year olds do – by writing poems.  Starting from the night of her sister’s breakdown and ending with signs of recovery, Cookie chronicles the heartbreak and confusion of a family torn apart by mental illness.

Critical Evaluation:

Stop Pretending is the kind of story that is meant to be told in verse, for poetry is exactly the kind of creative outlet that a teen girl would turn to in an effort to deal with and make sense of the heartache of losing her sister to madness.  While each poem helps to move the story along, every single one could also stand alone and feels like it would be the kind of poem a teen would write.  (Readers will be unsurprised to learn that the story and poems are based on Sones’ own family’s experiences.)  None of the verse feels forced or warped in an effort to include important plot points.  Stop Pretending is crushingly beautiful and, like all good young adult books, ends on a sad but hopeful note that offers solace and understanding.

Reader’s Annotation:

When Cookie’s sister suffers from a mental breakdown and is sent to a hospital to recover, Cookie deals with her confusion, pain, and loss the way so many other 13 year olds do – by writing poems.

Author Information:



Realistic Fiction

Booktalking Ideas:

Because the format is such a large part of the story, it would be important to incorporate into the booktalk use of the poetry.

Potential Controversy:

While some of Sones other books are often challenged because of their sexual content, Stop Pretending seems to mostly fly under the radar.  There is frank discussions of mental illness and the typical teen angst and anger at her parents and sister.

Reasons for Choosing This Title:

I have to admit I picked this up in part because I thought it would merely be a quick read.  I was pleasantly surprised by how good it was.


The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

cover image for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianAlexie, Sherman. (2007) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co.

Plot Summary:

Junior lives with a loving and close knit family on a reservation in Washington state, where he spends his days attempting to avoid getting picked on, messing around with his best friend, Rowdy, and drawing cartoons.  Born with persistent medical problems and into abject poverty, Junior approaches life with humor but no illusions as to what his chances are or regarding the unfair way in which he and his community have been treated.  After he punches his teacher, prompting from the teacher a confession and the advice to “go where there is hope” Junior tells his parents that he wants to transfer to the all white Reardon High.  His neighbors see the decision as an act of betrayal, but Junior is determined to go out and find hope – and possibly even find some to bring back to his community.

Critical Evaluation:

Told with elegance, humor, and wit, Alexi’s semi-autobiographical tale of one boy’s struggle to follow his dreams without losing his heritage is a must for any young adult collection and deserves all the praise it has gotten.  Alexie does not shy away from saying the truth, however hard it may be to hear.  The institutional poverty and discrimination he describes is neither downplayed nor romanticized and everyone in the book is portrayed with respect and honesty.  The balance between the difficult subject matter and Junior’s jokes and cartoons (drawn by Ellen Forney) is a delicate one and expertly done; the comedy acting as a counterpoint to the hopelessness and grief that surrounds Junior and allowing Alexie to delve deeply and often into depressing subject matter without overwhelming or losing readers.

Reader’s Annotation:

Juniors neighbor’s call him a traitor for transferring to Reardon High, where the only other Indian is the team mascot, but Junior is determined to go where he thinks he can find hope – and possibly carry some back home.

Author Information:




Booktalking Ideas:

Alexie’s voice is so very distinctive and engaging, I would be tempted to just read the first chapter straight through.  Although I may need to edit for time and add some of the basic premise afterwards.

Reading Level/Target Age:

4th grade/13-17

Possible Controversy:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has unfortunately already been banned from many schools and has made the ALA’s top ten challenged book list several times.  While the sex and masturbation discussed in the book are often given as the reason, it’s clear that many people are disturbed by the frank discussion of poverty and racism.

Reasons for Choosing This Book:

When I read Alexie’s response to the New York Post article about young adult books being to dark I knew I had to read his novel.


cover image for FlippedVan Draanen, W. (2001)  Flipped.  New York, NY: Alfred A. Knoff




Julianna Baker adores Bryce Loski, and has ever since he moved into her neighborhood when they were in the second grade.  Bryce can’t stand Juli, and has been trying to avoid her – often unsuccessfully – since she barged into their moving van that first day.  Can Bryce shake Juli now that they are no longer kids in elementary school?  And does he still want to?

Told in chapters that alternate between Bryce and Juli’s point of view, Flipped isn’t just a story about how the same event can look completely different when seen by different people.  It’s also a story about two tweens growing older and learning more about themselves and their families, and in the process coming to see each other in a different light.

I actually rather liked the incomplete ending and thought it worked well.  I think most tweens will be able to identify with either Juli or Bryce, if not both, and will also appreciate the themes of family, change, character, bravery, kindness, and responsibility.

Best for ages 11-14


Author website:


cover image for LoserSpinelli, J. (2002) Loser.  New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.


Donald Zinkoff isn’t quite like other children.  They don’t notice this at first, because when you are small, everyone is a little strange.  But as Zinkoff moves from kindergarten to first to second and then all the way up through fifth grade, it becomes harder for everyone to ignore.  Even Zinkoff himself, who used to never care that he was a little out of step with his classmates, suddenly wishes he could be just a little bit more like all the other kids.

Mellow and off-beat, like Zinkoff himself, Spinelli’s tale of an out of sync boy and his growing realization of how his peers perceive him will resonate with any tween who ever felt like they too, are a loser.  By ending on a minor triumph, the book may frustrate some who were expecting a flashier ending.  The resolution fits the tale, however, and its realism is more inspiring than any fireworks studded Hollywood ending.

Best for ages 8-12

Author website:

Waiting for Normal

cover image for Waiting for NormalConner, L. (2008) Waiting for Normal. New York, NY: Katherine Tegan Books.




Addie doesn’t want much. She can handle moving to a new school and losing all her old friends. She’s fine with living in an old trailer in a neighborhood with empty lots, gas stations, and not other kids at all. She doesn’t even really mind doing her more than her fair share of the chores. She’s accepted the fact that she and her half sisters now live in different homes.

Addie just wishes her life was a little more….normal. It would be nice if her mother wasn’t always all or nothing, but just once in a while could manage in between. She’s like to know that her mom will spend the money that Dwight, her ex-stepdad, sends them each month on the food it’s meant for, not on office supplies that never get used. She wishes she could go trick or treating or play in a school concert without it always becoming a disappointment or disaster. Mostly, she just wants to know that her mom will come home each night.

Waiting for Normal is a sweet, sad, and eventually happy book about twelve year old struggling to keep her head above water while living with a mother whose mental problems cause upheaval at every turn. Addie’s humble sweetness is a little grating (although not terribly unrealistic, as kids with parents with mental problems often end up working really hard to hide the problems going on at home) and the happy ending feels just a bit too pat considering the subject matter, even as bittersweet as it is. However, it’s a fairly decent book for tweens who may not be ready for the grittier stories of abuse like Werlin’s The Rules of Survival or Wiess’s Such a Pretty Girl.


Best for ages 8-13


Author’s Website:

Anything But Typical

Baskin, N. R. (2009) Anything But Typical. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

Twelve year old Jason Blake is anything but typical.  Sure, he lives in a normal house with normal parents and he goes to a normal suburban school.  But Jason has Asperger’s and his non-neurotypical self doesn’t really fit in well in a world filled with – and designed around – neurotypicals.  Jason’s one solace is the net, especially the Storyboard website, where he can not only chat without his Asperger’s making communication difficult, but he can also share his stories and ideas with the rest of the world in a way that makes sense to him.

As far as I can tell from my limited knowledge of the topic, Baskin captures the voice of a child on the Autistic/Asperger spectrum remarkably well.  From the start it is clear that Jason does not simply have difficulties fitting in, but that he is, in fact, occasionally on the verge of violent outbursts as a result of his frustration and confusion.  At the same time, our first person experience of a situation that most of us have only seen as outsiders keeps readers sympathetic even in during behavior that most would otherwise recoil from.

However, the main strength of Anything But Typical does not come from the ways in which Jason is not typical, but from the ways in which his experiences and problems are achingly familiar to every reader.  Jason may find certain social behaviors – such as making eye contact – to be difficult and distracting rather than comforting, but he still longs for friends, respect, and especially for girls to like him.   Like most teens, he longs to be someone different – someone that is smarter, more popular, more in control of himself – and he feels as though he is a constant disappointment to his parents.  And when he isn’t worrying about all that, he is mostly just wishing that people would leave him alone and let him be himself.

Slowly and painfully, Jason begins to learn how to be himself and still manage to survive a world in which he appears to be anything but typical.  In joining in him, readers  are not only given a glimpse of what it is like to be Jason, but are also shown how very much like Jason we all are.  Best for 9-14

Awards and Reviews:  Starred Kirkus Review, Starred Booklist Review

Author Website:

crossposted at my elljay