The teen years are a time of discovery, of figuring out who you are and who you want to be, of testing limits and taking ownership of your life. But for kids dealing with mental illness, those years are far more complicated. Two new YA novels present protagonists who are battling metaphorical demons – and themselves – in an effort to make sense of it all.
In Fairie, Montreal screenwriter and director Eisha Marjara’s debut novel, Lila is a girl on the cusp of her 18th birthday, a milestone that terrifies her. She suffers from anorexia nervosa, and has been hospitalized in a psychiatric facility for many months as doctors attempt to force her into putting some weight on her skeletal frame.
The daughter of Punjabi immigrants, Lila spends most of her young life noting her differences from those around her. She is dark to their light, chubby to their thin. It seems that every other girl in her midst is lithe and blond, and even her younger sister manages to develop into a slender, athletic teen despite indulging equally in their mother’s constant baking.
The advent of puberty, accompanied by the shame brought on by her mother’s treatment of Lila’s first period and her previously doting father’s distancing, only serve to underscore Lila’s rejection of aging and all things womanly. By obsessively tracking her caloric intake, exercising, and denying the normal emotional aspects of getting older, Lila wrests control of her body and her life from time and nature.
Martine Leavitt’s Calvin tells of a 17-year-old boy who experiences a schizophrenic break, consisting of the very real-seeming return of his childhood imaginary friend, a tiger named Hobbes. The book takes the form of a long letter addressed to Calvin and Hobbes comic creator Bill Watterson, written in Calvin’s first-person voice.
Always a bit of a loner, highly intelligent but bored at school, and possessed of a world-weariness beyond his years, Calvin is blindsided when he is suddenly able to “see” molecules and hear the voice of Hobbes in his head (followed by peripheral glimpses of him). Calvin is fully conscious of what is happening to him, though it is not until he is admitted to the psychiatric ward of a hospital that the diagnosis of schizophrenia is handed out.
Due to a series of coincidences (he was born on the day the last Calvin and Hobbes comic was published, his father wears glasses, he had a toy stuffed tiger named Hobbes when he was a kid, etc.) Calvin is convinced that he actually is the boy from Watterson’s strip, and that only Watterson can change the events that have begun to unfold. Calvin escapes from the hospital with his friend, Susie (the girl who lives two doors down), and sets off across Lake Erie from his home in Leamington, Ontario, to Watterson’s in Cleveland, Ohio – on foot, in winter – in the belief that only such a grand gesture will sway the artist to draw one last strip. “It sounded so feasible at the time, Bill,” says Calvin. “And you’d be there holding onto a new Calvin comic with no Hobbes in it that proved all the bad stuff that happened to me was just for a laugh and tomorrow would be a whole new three-frame adventure.”
Though both books are written in first-person, they have decidedly different tones. Fairie is intensely intimate, containing details that will ring resoundingly true for anyone who has ever suffered with an eating disorder. The strange combination of self-hatred that fuels extreme weight loss and pride that comes from the sensation of feeling nothing but hard bone under the skin without an ounce of give from unwanted fat and flesh is achingly true-to-life, but not glorified.
Lila is broken, in spirit and in body, and her voice is refreshingly raw. She is sarcastic and contradictory, and her story, though extreme, touches on many themes that will resonate with “healthy” readers as well: the objectification of women and hyper-sexualization of girls; the pressures felt by the children of immigrants to uphold the traditions and values of their parents’ country while striving to fit into a new culture and integrate disparate ideas into their lives; fear of the unknowable abyss of adulthood and what the future will bring. The book really does read like a teen’s confessional rather than a highly polished work of fiction.
In contrast, Leavitt’s book is a highly polished work of fiction, but that is what makes it work so well. Though Calvin’s disease is far less common, Leavitt creates a character who is representative of many forms of being “different;” his aching desire for normalcy is universal. But beyond that, Leavitt’s writing is virtually flawless. From character development to dialogue – complete with interjections from Hobbes and three-way conversations that would rival anything David Mamet could put to the page – to a plot that could have been hokey but is anything but, Leavitt masters them all with just the right amount of comic savvy and emotional intelligence.
Growing up is hard, so is writing coming-of-age stories that offer something new. Both of these books accomplish that feat admirably.