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A Story about Cancer (with a Happy Ending)

by India Desjardins and Marianne Ferrer (ill.)

While India Desjardins and Marianne Ferrer’s story about cancer may not be a suspenseful one (see the title’s parenthesis), it is in no way predictable in its approach to the subject matter.

It’s the story of an unnamed girl who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 10 and, after five years of treatment, is about to find out her prognosis. While she and her family wait on a bench outside the doctor’s office, the reader is given glimpses of the years preceding: time in the hospital, a favourite nurse, a friend in the cancer ward, a boy who becomes a boyfriend despite the fact she might be terminal. And her incisive thoughts on how people treat you when you’re sick.

The protagonist takes issue with words of encouragement that adults, including her parents, use – how strong she is, how she’ll beat this – explaining the ways in which those pep talks can actually have the opposite effect to what’s intended. “One day my mother told me for the hundredth time how strong I was,” the girl says, “that she had so much confidence in me, and that she knew I’d get well. … So I decided to ask her the question that I’d been too afraid to ask before. ‘Mom, if I don’t get better, will you be disappointed in me?’”

Desjardins has created a multidimensional character who is scared, angry, giddy, petulant, and wise beyond her years. Emotions change with every page turn, similar to the ups and downs of teenage life or the fluctuating effects of cancer treatments. And the budding love story is perfectly integrated. The 15-year-old boyfriend is on the periphery, not attending the doctor’s appointments or privy to the family’s bonding, yet he’s never far from the young girl’s thoughts.

So much of the book’s tone and mood is provided by Ferrer’s abstract, evocative, and bracing illustrations – done in a unique blend of picture book and graphic novel styles. The colour palette consists of greys and pale greens contrasted with deep maroons and burnt browns. For the most part, healthy people are given more colour than the sick, but there are brilliant red bursts in the girl’s clothes and pallor at the points when she is not feeling defined by her illness. Bodies appear bendable, fractured, and shattered from years of being poked and prodded, or broken down by grief and worry.

Desjardins wrote this book at the request of a young girl with leukemia who had asked her to write a story about cancer that ends happily. But the author and illustrator have done much more by exploring the full lives that young cancer patients strive to lead – and by confronting hard truths about illness and our often inadequate responses to it.