Moving on

Saturday, October 8, 2011


Every year at about this time, we take our sixth-graders on an overnight camping excursion to a nearby YMCA facility.  For some this is a first-time experience, and a big part of our planning is dedicated to relieving the anxiety and answering all the questions about the unknown.  This is especially important for our 26 students, all of whom have some form of a learning disability, usually dyslexia and/or ADHD, which is often accompanied by anxiety.

It's no small task putting it all together and pulling it off successfully, but the rewards are worth their weight in gold.  These are some of the nuggets I came home with.

The group really struggled to line up according to their birth dates in an opening team-building exercise.  One boy solemnly informed the facilitator that he was dyslexic and therefore unable to understand positional directions.  The facilitator glanced somewhat desperately towards us teachers before plunging into the next task, which required that all the students line up on two long wooden blocks with one foot on each block.  They were instructed to take ropes attached to the blocks in their hands, and work together to move both blocks across a field while still standing on them.  The same dyslexic boy quickly took the lead position on the blocks and effectively got the team organized and moving towards their goal in no time.  By the way, one of his directives involved instructing the students on the use of left and right feet!

In another team-building activity students had to take turns moving through a maze made of roped off squares on the ground.  They were not allowed to talk until the whole team got through, and every time a student made a wrong move he had to go to the end of the line and start all over again.  Slowly the students began to figure it out.  The pay-off came in watching the quicker students gently and patiently use silent communication to coach the others to the exit.

Perhaps the greatest number of triumphs happened at the climbing wall this year. Student after student overcame various degrees of fear to meet goals they set for themselves.  Some wanted to get to the edge of the first ladder, others to the top platform.  One particular student who has overused the word "can't" in the classroom delighted us with a comical and self-assurred account of how he was overcoming "dangerous conditions" all the way to the top.  I'll look forward to reminding him of his successful climb the next time I hear "can't."

My pockets are weighted down with golden nuggets today, each a small victory in a special student's climb to success.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


The ups and downs of the first full week of a new school year have come to pass and with it, a sigh of relief.  At least now we can begin to establish a routine and settle into some semblance of normalcy.  But that old word--normal--dogs me once again.  Many of the students in the learning disabled population where I teach want nothing more than to blend in, to become like the rest of "them."  Yet sadly, many arrive with fresh wounds having been inflicted by "them."

So ironically, I marched through the week finishing a book featuring one of the most radical nonconformists in young adult fiction, Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli.  Her real name was Susan Caroway, but one of the many names she created for herself was Stargirl, because "I didn't feel like Susan anymore."  She arrived at unspectacular Mica High with an array of long hippie-like skirts, accompanied by her pet rat and a ukulele for singing happy birthday without an invitation to anyone and everyone.  Put off at first, the students began to warm up to her random acts of kindness and her infectious enthusiasm.  Largely due to her cheer-leading charisma, bottom-ranked Mica High was headed for the basketball championship for the first time in years when things fell apart.  Stargirl not only cheered for both teams at games ("I root for everybody"), but when a star opponent became injured, she rushed onto the court to help him.  Overnight the entire student body turned against her.  They shunned her. There was no turning back, even when Stargirl made a brief and painful attempt to look, act, and sound just like "them."

While Spinelli doesn't sell himself as a Christian writer, returning an angry slap in the face from a jealous cheerleader with a kiss on the cheek is right out of the New Testament.  If you don't go with the Christian theme, you might be tempted to swing to the other extreme, wondering why Stargirl didn't have a total and complete mental collapse, so unpredictably, out-of-this world crazy she seems.

So at the end of this long first week of school, I look at my sweet students and want to say "go for it!"  Be who you are.  Don't let "them" ever stop you or try to remake you into someone you are not.  And I look at myself as a teacher and writer and wonder, how willing am I to step out there and be so different, so innovative, so creative beyond imagination, so other-directed that my own sense of normalcy becomes significantly redefined.

Radical individualism.  If you've had a brush with it, I'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


Summer as we teachers know it is drawing to a close.  In order to make the journey back to the classroom more palatable every year, I go through a systems check to assure myself that I did, indeed, accomplish all the items on my hearts-desire list for one more summer.  

Inside painting: check; closet purging: check; deep cleaning: check; renewing a bicycling sport: check; seeing my first book published: negative.  As Jan Karon would say, "there's the rub."  After ten months of being shopped around by my agent, my book, CRAZY, has yet to find a taker.  I've had close calls, and wonderful affirmations by reputable, big-name publishing houses, but in an increasingly tight publishing market, my book is risky.  Written in verse, set in the sixties, dealing with mental illness, it lacks all the earmarks of blockbusters these days such as dystopian themes, werewolves and sexual innuendos.  Those, of course, are all the reasons why my agent loves it. 

My woe-is-me outlook took a wonderful upward turn when I attended my 45th high school reunion at pristine Lake O' the Woods in Oregon last week.  To begin with, you can't walk in a grove of ponderosa pine and douglas fir, paddle on a lake at the base of a snow-capped dormant volcano, and watch bald eagles cruise overhead without experiencing the blessings of this life, and the insignificance of our own petty concerns.  

And then there is the human element.  My best girlfriends and I picked right up where we left off years ago, sharing laughter and tears, heartaches and triumphs, now peppered with inevitable health issues.  Twenty percent of our class of just over 400 is now deceased, and many, we learned, were facing serious or life-threatening health concerns.  But hope and a zest for life prevailed, and we fed off of each other's thankfulness and determination to live life to the fullest as long as we can.  One friend said she works on "gratitudes" each day, and in our short weekend together, it became a theme.  

No, I didn't accomplish all my goals this summer.  But I think I came away with a greater appreciation of who I am and where I am in life's journey.   As I lay in wait for this sunset picture, dragonflies danced around my head, fish jumped just off the dock, and bullfrogs rehearsed for the nightly concert.  There's a whole lot of living going on each day before that sunset, and as a teacher, writer, wife, mother and grandmother, I promise not to waste a moment going forward.

Renewed perspective on life:  check.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


It's half over.  Exactly one month from today.   I avoid looking at the calendar because that's just way too in your face.  I try to ignore the way the clock seems to be racing on its own time-warp schedule, getting louder and more menacing as it tickety-tocks my carefree days away.  But there is one reminder,  regular as clock-work about this time every summer, that is totally out of my control.

The inevitable back-to-school nightmare syndrome!

It was that typical first day when the little darlings arrive so fresh faced and eager, unaware that their fully rested and rejuvenated teacher has already been launched into overload by too little time in her room, too  many new programs to learn, and too little sleep the night before.

I arrived late and discovered that I had left something vitally important in my car. Whatever it was, I simply couldn't do first day without it.  I raced back to the parking lot, just on the edge of the campus that resembled a cross between New York City and Disneyland, only to find that I simply could not remember the way back to my room.  Who knows how long in dreamland it took me to find my way out of the maze but thank heavens for quirky coincidences.  I spotted my fellow teachers at the football stadium along the way and suddenly remembered it was the opening day assembly.  My luck continued when my colleagues, gathered in a tight cluster in a dark corner at the foot of the stands, assured me they had covered for me, and my class was in good hands.  No admins in sight.  Whew!

"Where are my students?"  I inquired with relief and a good bit of curiosity.

"Students?  What students?  We're just here to watch the game.  Have a beer!"

Wow, I thought.  School start-up has really improved.  This is going to be a great year.

I somehow found my way to my room and was further delighted to find not one, but two brand new state of the art computers.  I must be dreaming, I thought.  I remember only putting in for a new power cord on the wish list.  Suddenly someone down the hall said they saw a cloud of locusts moving across the campus in our direction.

The students have arrived!

By now my computer elation had morphed into panic when I realized my room had no electrical outlets, indeed no electricity, and I had forgotten to prepare a lesson plan.

Give me a few more dreams like this one, and I'll be powered up for another great year!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


It's finally here.  Summer.  I'm free as a bird for a precious cluster of weeks and I don't want to waste a minute.

First, I tackled the to-do list, starting with the windows inside and out, upstairs and down.  My husband and I chuckled over our choice of bonding time as we shouted and pantomimed directions through the brightening panes.  Somehow he thought he could get by without the aids (hearing) that day, sort of like one of my students showing up for a field trip without the meds.  I forgave him when the sunshine practically burned a hole in my spotless windows much like horseradish kickstarts a stuffy nose.

Next it was the floors.  Down on all fours Cinderella style until the original colors began to emerge.  Out out, "darn" spots, I commanded. Lady MacBeth couldn't have washed away the sins of the year any better, and Anne Lamott would have been proud of my tile-by-tile technique which reaped some fertile plot points and colorful character ideas as my mind drifted way beyond the floor.

Don't get me wrong.  My idea of summer doesn't translate into a self-imposed hard-labor camp.  It's just that teachers and writers both tend to let things really pile up during school and writing projects, and it makes us feel extremely efficient, well-organized and productive to stir up a bunch of dust once a year (maybe twice) before settling into the fun stuff.

And what about that fun stuff?  First I took one giant leap for woman-kind (at least for this kind of woman) and invested in a smart phone.  I began to experience the length and breadth of my leap when I ran into one of my sixth-grade students at the phone store who escorted me around the displays with sales tips that put the customer service rep (and me) to shame.  This is supposed to be fun?  I secretly vowed to go home and cram like a freshman before finals lest my smart phone outsmarts me.

But the fun event that tops all so far this summer is the resurrection of two nostalgic 3-speed bikes:  my husband's 1966 Rudge and my 1972 Raleigh.  This culminates several years of debate about whether or not anyone could even work on such antiques, and assuming they could, how cost-effective it would be compared to buying new bikes.  It turns out the process was much easier and less expensive than buying a smart phone, and the learning curve just a matter of practice and review.

                                                                 1973 - Queens, NY

                                                                    2011 - Charlotte, NC

Now if I can just stay upright and use the GPS on my Droid to find my way home, I can truly say I am at least as smart as a sixth grader!

Sunday, May 29, 2011


I've not had a spare minute to blog the past month because I've had my nose in a book.  The one I just finished writing, that is.  It's my second novel and I've been on a self-imposed fast track, staying up late and getting up early and all of this during the last frantic six weeks of the school year.  Why?  It has to do with trying to get pregnant.  No, wait.  I'd better back up and explain.

We've all probably heard about women who try and try to get pregnant and eventually give up.  They then try adoption, and within a short period of time, they finally get pregnant.  Suddenly they have more of a blessing than they bargained for, but that's a whole other story.  Well, my first novel has been out there seven months now, trying and trying to get published to no avail.  That's with the help of a beloved agent doing her level best to push it.  So I decided to throw all my energy into cranking out a second book, with the hopes that that will somehow magically increase my chances of getting the first one published, or maybe even both. 

I know the metaphor is a stretch, but I can't help it.  Writing books makes you weird like that.

So I decided to give myself a day off, get completely away from it, do something normal for a change.  Here's how it went.

An authentic voice told me to go shopping because the mood in our fridge was empty.  That set  up an inner conflict due to the absence of a theme for dinner.  After a dialogue with my husband I was able to weave several strands together, nicely layered, that set the tone for the entire week.  The plot thickened when the setting on our street became snarled with traffic, and two shallow characters held us all up with an outer conflict, commonly called a fender bender.  My journey ended with a climax when the grocery clerk overcharged me and I had to query her about the validity of her facts.  When I said her numbers weren't right for my list, she lost it, and I fled the scene.  My synopsis of the afternoon didn't hold my husband's interest.

Maybe I should just get started on that third book........

Monday, April 25, 2011


Our first grandson is due any day now, and I can't help but reminisce about his father, our son, and speculate about who this precious little boy will become in life. 

The memories.  I still chuckle when I think of some of the antics of Thomas and his twin brother, Jonathan.  Sometimes, quite honestly, I'm embarrassed to admit how they got the best of me, or how inept I was at parenting.  The day one of the parishioners (they are PK's) shook her head in distress and asked if they were "normal."  Another day, waiting my turn in line at the bank, the teller shuffled the requested cash and muttered tersely, "do they ever shut up?"

In spite of my parenting foibles, I am proud to announce how wonderfully they have turned out.  And ironically, they both put those talkative tendencies to great use.  Tom is an inspiring and eloquent Bible teacher, and Jon is a prolific and creative composer and songwriter.

Now bring on my first grandson!  As my husband always said during the most boisterous times, "be glad they are not dull." 

In honor of poetry month, and the inventive possibilities that lead to an adventurous and inquisitive life, I offer this poem I wrote some years back for my science students.


Mrs. Quiggly, how fast will my rocket soar---?
Not now, Robert, we're on our way out the door.

            Line up, class, with rockets in hand
            Launch day is here, it will surely be grand.

Mrs. Quiggly, if I choose an elliptical path---?
Robert, when you interrupt, you inspire my wrath.

            Now class, listen carefully and follow directions
            Take just a minute for final inspections.

Mrs. Quiggly, do you think Newton made a mistake---?
Robert, Robert, what on earth will it take?

            Gantry over here and fuel over there
            In a matter of minutes, we'll conquer the air.

Mrs. Quiggly, I've got it, I figured it out---
Robert, that’s enough, without a doubt.

            Now then, class, to the launch pad
            If you've not paid attention, you'll wish you had.


            Mrs. Quiggly, Mrs. Quiggly, come qui, qui, quickly
            Robert's upside down in the tree,
            and he's looking awfully funny to me.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


One of the favorite catch phrases of any good teacher or parent is "make the right choice." It's always a triumphant moment when our children or students make a wise decision independently, but more often than not, a teachable moment or a gentle review of the options enhances the learning experience. 

Co-authors Leah Butler and Trudy Peters have joined forces to launch a series of picture books with the decision-making acumen of six through ten-year-olds in mind.  Leah and Trudy, former magazine publishers, didn't let moving to separate cities stop them from their shared goal of writing for children.  They have co-founded Spencers Mill Press with the ambitious goal of creating a 26-book series much like a set of encyclopedias, with one book for each letter of the alphabet.  Each story deals with a different moral, ethical, or personal dilemma that children in this age group face on a daily basis. 

To date, two books have been completed; Andre's Choice: In a Land of Opportunity, and Owen's Choice: The Night of the Halloween Vandals.  With the help of beautiful illustrations and a firefly named T. Winkie O'Toole, the protagonists are thrown into ethical dilemmas such as vandalism, bullying, cheating, changing schools and telling the truth.  Through an interactive format the reader has the opportunity to choose how the book will end and consider the consequences of that choice through a set of follow-up questions.

In an era when too many books blur the borders between right and wrong, who can argue against teaching the right choice at an early age? 

Leah spends time reading in various schools around Charlotte, and can be contacted through their website  


Thursday, March 17, 2011


My four sixth-grade reading comprehension classes recently read Joan Hiatt Harlow's historical novel, Star in the Storm, set in Newfoundland in 1912.

A slobbery, lovable "Newfie" dog named Sirius stole the show and the hearts of my students when he became the key player in the rescue of over 100 people from a sinking steamer off the coast of Newfoundland.  The rescue is based on a real event that happened not long after the Titanic sank in nearby waters.  The author did a grand job of keeping the reader on the edge of his seat, wondering if Sirius's owners would find a way around a new law that would ban all non-sheepherding dogs from the island. Twelve-year-old Maggie did everything in her power to hide her dog, unaware that it was her father's bold attempt to break away from greedy Howard Rand's fishing monopoly that drove the campaign against Sirius.  When Rand's own daughter and grandson were among the rescued, he used his influence to assure Sirius a safe haven with the family and community who loved him.

After the students finished reading the book and discussing it and its colloquial vocabulary at length, each class was assigned the task of collaborating to write three or four chapters in play form.  This involved brainstorming the main characters, events, setting, dialogue and action for an assigned section of the book.  It was not as easy as it looked, especially considering that we have a shortage of girls in our school.  

As the students began reading their parts in a readers theatre format, they created simple props and stage design.  By sheer coincidence, we were scheduled to visit a very serious play about Anne Frank this same week, which ironically had a few actors playing more than one part with very simple stage design.  It was exactly what we needed to see to tie up the loose ends on our production.

After a week of rehearsing separately, the four classes came together for the first and only performance, and it went off without a hitch!  Thank you, Joan Hiatt Harlow, for writing such an endearing story, and thank you, students, for putting such heart and soul into a fun learning experience.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


A couple of good friends publish a newsletter full of everything literary, and this week they really struck a chord with me when they featured an array of appealing science books for kids.  As a sixth grade science teacher, I know my students could easily get engrossed in Sylvia Branzei's book Grossology.  I mean, who wouldn't want to know that the Latin word for a zit actually means "fat maggot" because early doctors thought zits were really homes for maggots under the skin?  And I can't think of a single student who wouldn't eat up (maybe that's not the right phraseology) gobs of scientific trivia about everyday secretions, scabs, smells, barfs, burps, and well, there's more......

If you are a parent or teacher looking for ways to spark scientific interest, check out Carol Baldwin's and Joyce Hostetter's web site, Talking Story

Along the way, I've done my part to write some pretty bad poetry (I'll try anything once) to liven things up in my science classes.  One year I gave the following poem to the students at the beginning of the year without the science terms underlined, and if they could underline and define them all by the end of the year (and catch the play on words), they would have completed "the circuit" to everybody's satisfaction! 


Welcome to Ms. Quiggly's class
Where "pun" ishment is for you,
Only if you fail to see
The scientific point of view.

Now here's the year, at a glance
A "sci" nopsis if you will.
Pull in your chair, take in some air,
Science IS a thrill.

First of  all, don't cell yourself short,
(There's  not a fungus among us).
Careful now, don't protist too much
Lest all the monerans run for the bus.

We deal in classified information here
But the rules of the kingdom are free.
Always line up in single phylum  and
In this class, keep your eyes on me.

In order to make this year go well
And be part of the family,
You don't have to be a gen(i)us
Just a species, like you and me.

During the year, without a doubt
You'll find out what the matter is.
Clearly, these will be lessons of substance
Worth  atomic weight on the quiz.

We'll get reactions both physical and "com"ical;
Test the law of "conversation"of mass.
I'll learn your properties, as you will mine,
You'll know the state of your fate, fast.

You'll find an element of surprise (or 111 of them)
Laid out on the table for free.
Periodically, the atmosphere will be positively charged
With nary an electron cloud to see.

Ionically, you'll win some and lose some
But  I'll  not compound your troubles.
Instead, we'll find a formula for success
A solution, saturated with results, (or maybe bubbles).

Within the space of a few weeks
Your knowledge will increase astronomically.
You'll meet red giants and white dwarfs
An expert of  the universe you'll be.
You'll  get a big bang out of this class
Your pulsar just might get too quick.
No falling into black holes, if you please
Avoid becoming a lunar-tic.

Develop good study habitats.
You'll stay off my endangered species list.
I prey that you will find your niche
Of course, in this community, I insist.

I promise to conduct an electrifying class
Well insulated from all static distractions.
You must, however, do watt-ever you can
To complete the circuit to my satisfaction.

Monday, February 21, 2011


I recently attended a wonderful lecture at the Rankin Institute, the outreach component of The Fletcher School where I teach.  Granted it was a school night and had the importance of attendance not been impressed upon the faculty, I may have passed.  But five minutes into Behavioral Consultant Sharon Weiss's presentation on her book, Chaos to Calm:  Structuring for Success at Home, I found myself wishing I'd had access to such advice in the middle of the terrible two's with our twin boys many years ago.

While Ms. Weiss's message was geared towards parents of children with learning disabilities and/or ADHD, she leveled the playing field with this golden nugget of advice for all parents.  "If you treat the ADHD child as if he does not have ADHD, it can be a disaster.  If you treat the child who does not have ADHD as if he had ADHD, it can be nothing but beneficial."

With that said, she went on to emphasize the obvious, but perhaps not the easiest points for parents to absorb or accept
  • behavior in a child starts with you (the parent)
  • focus on the here and now, realizing that progress is an incremental process
  • if your child truly does have a disability, keep a disability perspective, recognizing that the behavior is often part of the disability
  • be proactive:  teach to a behavior before you need it 
  • provide increased structure and predictability
Concerning structure and predictability, Ms. Weiss advised parents (or teachers) to ask themselves three important questions:  1)what do I want the child to do instead of what he's doing 2) how can I put it in a visual format so he doesn't rely on my telling him what to do, and 3) what will make it worth his while? I loved the practical application of checklists, schedules, timers, calendars, clocks, and charts.  She gave wonderful examples of students, most likely the older ones, learning how to negotiate "earned" minutes towards a reward, a favorite being time with anything that has a screen these days.  To be most effective, the child should have input on the designated reinforcer and it should not be available at any other time or for any other reason than to reinforce the behavior.

Whether we are parents or teachers of children with or without learning disabilities, we've probably all obstructed a child's transformation at one time or another by taking on the child's responsibility, setting unrealistic expectations, being inconsistent,  or relying on punishment or too many rules.  These pitfalls lead to power struggles, and power struggles are no-win situations.

As a teacher and a parent, I know that success at home usually leads to success at school and a healthy and happy child.  I strongly recommend this book to any parent or teacher who is experiencing more chaos than calm in his or her current setting.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

YA Books in Verse

I have a very demanding friend who pushes me around a lot.  I mean, some years back she said I ought to get more involved in the writing scene so I ended up helping her out managing the SCBWI critique group here in Charlotte.  (If truth be told, we had a third party who brought us together, but that's another story!) Then, when I dropped out of that so I could spend more time writing poems, she said I really ought to write a novel in verse.  So I did.  Now, she's busy critiquing a manuscript for the Write2ignite conference and she said I really ought to compile a list of novels in verse that she can share with this budding author, and besides, it would fit nicely on my blog.  Some people have a lot of nerve, don't they?  And all I can say is, some people like me would stay stuck in a rut without such dear, genuine friends who are willing to goad them along with loving encouragement and sound suggestions.  You can check out all the cool things my gutsy good friend Carol is up to at

So getting back to the task at hand, here are a few good sites to visit for listings and/or reviews of YA novels in verse.  I know there are others out there, and I will welcome suggestions and additions that anyone has to offer.  A short list of novels in verse with brief summaries, produced by the Austin Public Library Connected Youth project.  The site is worth perusing for the other lists it has compiled, including Picture Books for Teens, and Short and Sweet:  Teen Books Under 150 pages.   Author, motivational speaker, and writing instructor Susan Taylor Brown has compiled a list of 132+ YA books in verse.  This is a list without summaries, but the site is rich in resources for poetry and poets.   Read in a Single Sitting, a book review site dedicated to fun, fast reads offers another short list of YA books in verse with brief summaries.  This site also has a variety of lists for both adults and young adults.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Working with learning disabled students is like solving a variety of intricate jigsaw puzzles on a daily basis.   Thankfully I'm part of a team-teaching group, but honestly, some days our collective wisdom is insufficient towards solving the puzzles that embody particular students.  So I have great appreciation for the parents who get past the almost unavoidable denial and who launch a relentless quest for the pieces of the puzzle that will unlock a bright future for their child.

Parents on this journey need all the support they can find, and one of the most inspiring and supportive books I have read is Laughing Allegra, by Anne Ford, Henry Ford's great-granddaughter.  The book opens with Allegra's final competition in the U.S. Figure Skating Association's Adult Nationals at the age of 30.  In a nail biting moment, Anne Ford asks, "How can she do this?  How can she stand the pressure?" You find yourself asking the same questions as the author recounts the delays and irregularities in Allegra's development from infancy through young adulthood.  Anne Ford is forthright in describing friends and family who tried unsuccessfully to share early observations and concerns, countless schools that offered suggestions but not admission, the struggle to find appropriate friends, the search for the right doctors, the difficulty being in such a high-achieving, high-profile family.

The message in this book is clear.  No amount of money or status can buy a child's way out of the entanglements of learning disabilities.  But the determination and commitment of parents to become their  child's advocate and cheerleader will reap incomparable results.

In addition to the from-the-heart account of Anne Ford's heartaches and pain as a parent of a learning disabled child, she has offered valuable appendices with lists and resources on topics such as "Mothers and Fathers Understanding Each Other" and "Your Legal Rights."  Through her personal experience and years of chairing the National Center for Learning Disabilities she offers wisdom on everything from helping your child gain financial independence to preparing the way when you are gone.  This is an inspiring read for all parents, regardless of whether or not they have a child with learning disabilities.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Recent news of the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the reports swirling around the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, brings mental health to the forefront once again.  So far, the facts seem to indicate that Loughner was suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness.  A disturbing video he posted on Youtube was enough to get him suspended from Pima Community College, with the stipulation that he not be readmitted without a mental evaluation proving that he does not pose a danger to himself or others.

We all want the best mental health, as well as physical well-being, for our sons and daughters when we send them off to college.  But sometimes they depart with weighty baggage, either known or unknown, over which we, as parents, have little or no control.  For example, some students that sailed off to college this past semester may have knowingly departed with a firm diagnosis of bipolar disease.  Hopefully they have checked in with the campus health center and availed themselves of all possible educational, medical,  and psychological services.

Chances are there were others, perhaps similar in some way to Loughner, who departed with a list of symptoms that have, if anything, increased in intensity or have not been shared with parents or dealt with in any organized manner. I recently came across an excellent resource for students who might be dealing with bipolar disease, or with symptoms they fear might be pointing in that direction  The book, Facing Bipolar by Russ Federman and Andy Thomson offers:
  • a concise description of the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder
  • a discussion of the essential combined role of psychotherapy and medication.
  • an overview of the multiple complexities of living with bipolar disorder during late adolescence and young adulthood.
Along with the helpful advice on this youtube presentation Drs. Federman and Thomson stress that "it's important you know that a healthy and balanced life with bipolar disorder is possible." While all forms of mental illness may not be so easily managed, early diagnosis and treatment of any mental illness will lead to a better quality of life and perhaps prevent tragedies in the future.  

Saturday, January 8, 2011


My book, Crazy, about a teen girl's obsession that she will end up like her bipolar mother, is currently being shopped around by my agent, Julia Kenny of MarksonThoma Literary Agency. While I sit by and wait ever so patiently (smile) for good news, I thought it worthwhile to compile a list of other YA books out there that deal with mental issues that challenge young protagonists either directly, or indirectly (sister, brother, parent, friend, etc.)

Many of these books are widely read by teens.  As a writer I am both concerned and curious about what motivates teens to read accounts of protagonists who sometimes face such challenging, dismal, or frightening circumstances.  Do teens subconsciously want the problems these often troubled characters have, or are they identifying with the protagonist in a quest for self-help?  Are authors who delve into these issues seeking to assist young readers, or creating unhealthy or troubled characters because they sell well, without any regard for the possible negative ramifications?

If you have read any of these books, whether you are a teen or an adult who enjoys YA literature (nothing wrong with that!) I would welcome your thoughts. Why do you gravitate towards such issues/books/protagonists? I realize there is a wide range of circumstances here from disorders such as autism to drug use to psychosis and many in between.  Perhaps they all have the common thread that could be labeled "disturbing."  What do we hope to gain by either writing or reading disturbing books?


After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away by Joyce Carol Oates.  A teenage girl, tormented by her mother's death in a car accident that spared her, nearly dies from abuse of Oxycontin before she can face her fears and grief.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon.
Told in the voice of a teenage boy with autism who applies his literal-minded observations in trying to disprove a neighbor who falsely accuses him of killing his dog. 

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.  Right before entering ninth grade a girl is raped at a huge party and then calls the police.  When her “friends” ostracize her she becomes depressed and literally stops talking until a second encounter with the “Beast” brings justice to light. 

Winter Girls by Laurie Halse Anderson.  Two teenage girls suffer from eating disorders.  One survives and one doesn’t. 

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.  Before she commits suicide, Hannah Baker records a tape that circulates to classmates after her death, painfully chronicling the reasons why she ended her life and how each of the recipients affected her decision. 

Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.  Autobiographical account of Burroughs’ life with his mentally ill mother, alcoholic father, and the psychiatrist he ends up living with. 

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine.  A girl with Asperger’s works with a school counselor to find “empathy” and “closure” by finishing the Eagle Scout project her beloved brother left behind when he was shot to death. 

I am the Cheese by Robert Cormier.  A young boy’s discovery that he and his family have been given entirely new identities through a witness protection program intertwines with the actual death of both parents.  The boy ends up in a psychiatric hospital trying to regain his memory of the tragedies that have swallowed his life.   

Stop Pretending:  What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy by Sonya Jones.  In a sequence of short, intense poems based on the author's own experiences, a 13-year-old girl suffers through her shifting feelings about her sibling's mental illness.

Crank, and Glass by Ellen Hopkins.  A novels written in verse and told in the voice of Kristen, Hopkins’ daughter, as she battled a transforming addiction to crystal meth, even after giving birth to her first child. 

Impulse by Ellen Hopkins.   The stories of three teens who end up at the same psychiatric hospital after attempted suicides. 

Identical by Ellen Hopkins.  16 year old identical twins react in different ways to a dysfunctional family that includes two highly successful and professional parents whose secrets include alcoholism and sexual abuse. 

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini.  A 15-year old boy becomes depressed at a high-pressure school and checks himself into a psychiatric hospital where he returns to better health along with a new passion for art. 

Checkers by John Marsden.  A nameless adolescent girl is committed to a mental hospital following a nervous breakdown. 

Cut by Patricia McCormick.  A compelling and compassionate look at a young woman's struggle to overcome the impulses that lead her to inflict harm on herself. 

Damage by A. M. Jenkins.  A realistic portrait of a young man’s descent into the world of depression and suicide. 

Lisa, Bright and Dark by John Neufield.  A somewhat dated (1969) but still relevant account of a sixteen-year old girl’s descent into mental illness, and how her friends tried to help her when her parents missed the warning signs. 

Memories of Summer by Ruth White.  The story of how a teenage girl’s descent into schizophrenia traumatized her family, especially her younger sister. 

Tenderness by Robert Cormier.  The story of a psychopathic teen killer’s involvement with a promiscuous, vulnerable teenage girl. 

Tribute to Another Dead Rock Star by Randy Powell.  Not about mental illness per se, but the protagonist’s mentally challenged brother is a key character and part of the conflict. 

So Much to Tell You by John Marsden.  Based on a true story of a teenage girl who is the unintended victim of a vial of acid thrown by her own father.  She learns how to deal with post-traumatic stress through journaling. 

When She Was Good by Norma Fox Mazer.  After years of abuse from her mentally ill older sister, a girl gingerly takes her first steps toward liberation when her tormentor dies.

Border Crossing by Jessica Anderson. A 15-year-old boy tries to cope with a dysfunctional relationship with his alcoholic mother as he slips into schizophrenia.

Right Behind You by Gail Giles. A nine-year-old boy lights his seven-year-old neighbor on fire and the book deals with the aftermath.    

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott.  The account of a 15-year-old girl who has been abducted by a sexual predator who killed his last abductee when she turned 15.