Title: Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Sister Went Crazy
Author: Sonya Sones
Publisher: Harper Collins Children's Books
Publication Date: February 2001
This is, according to the author's website, an autobiographical account of what happened when her older sister was hospitalized due to her mental breakdown. The author reflects on her own feelings of frustration, fear, anxiety, and nostalgia as she walks through the text.
This book has some interesting points, particularly for a student struggling with depression or anxiety or with a parent or sibling struggling with these issues. One poem that struck a chord with me was "Snapshot" which describes the author's nostalgia as she recalls a particular photograph. "You didn't look crazy/at all back then./I wish you could be eight/again." The author is struggling with her feelings of frustration that her life and her sister's were normal and she is expressing her desire for normalcy. Certainly this poem can touch anyone who is having an "off" day - not just a person experiencing the roller coaster ride that is associated with manic depression and bipolarism.
However, this text is a fairly mature one and it deals with a difficult subject matter. For example, the poem "Mass Pike" describes the father's breakdown as they are driving down the road. While the father collapses emotionally, the rest of the world continues as it did before. "and we weep with him/while cars filled/with happy families/whiz past."
One Christmas eve, 13-year-old Cookie's big sister has a nervous breakdown: a wild-eyed Jewish girl wearing only a nightgown," she rushes out the door to Midnight Mass. Following this manic moment, the sister is institutionalized. This haunting novel, told entirely in Cookie's first person poems, is the story of what happens in the wake of this emotional disaster. Some of it is heartbreakingly predictable - Cookie is terrified that she will have a breakdown, her former friends shun her, her parents' marriage begins unraveling. But there are wonderful surprises, too: Cookie is introduced to photography and finds in it an opportunity to heal herself and her sister: a new boy comes to school, and he and Cookie fall in love. The poems - some as short as five lines, none longer than three pages - have a cumulative emotional power that creeps up on the reader, culminating in a moving, unexpected line or phrase: "I blink/and there you suddenly are/inhabiting your eyes again...and I'm feeling all lit up/like a jar filled/with a thousand fireflies." Such small moments become large in the context of their promise of healing and the demonstration of life's power to continue. Based on Sones' own family experience, this novel-in-verse shows the capacity of poetry to record the personal and translate it into the universal.—Michael Cart
School Library Journal
An unpretentious, accessible book that could provide entry points for a discussion about mental illness - its stigma, its realities, and its effect on family members. Based on the journals Sones wrote at the age of 13 when her 19-year-old sister was hospitalized due to manic depression, the simply crafted but deeply felt poems reflect her thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams during that troubling time. In one poem, the narrator fears that "If I stay any longer/than an hour/...I'll see that my eyes/have turned into her eyes/my lips/have turned into her lips..." She dreads having her friends learn of her sister's illness. "If I told them that my sister's nuts/they might act sympathetic/but behind my back/would everyone laugh?" and wonders what she could have done to prevent the breakdown. All of the emotions and feelings are here, the tightness in the teen's chest when thinking about her sibling in the hospital, her grocery list of adjectives for mental illness, and the honest truth in the collection's smallest poem, "I don't want to see you./I dread it./There./I've said it." An insightful author's note and brief list of organizations are included. —Sharon Korbeck, Waupaca Area Public Library, WI.
In a story based on real events, and told in poems, Sones explores what happened and how she reacted when her adored older sister suddenly began screaming and hearing voices in her head, and was ultimately hospitalized.
Individually, the poems appear simple and unremarkable, snapshot portraits of two sisters, a family, unfaithful friends, and a sweet first love. Collected they take on life and movement, the individual frames of a movie that in the unspooling become animated, telling a compelling tale and presenting a painful passage through young adolescence. The form, a story-in-poems, fits the story remarkably well, spotlighting the musings of the 13-year-old narrator, and pinpointing the emotions powerfully. She copes with friends who snub her, worries that she, too, will go mad, and watches her sister's slow recovery. To a budding genre that includes Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust (1997) and Virginia Euwer Wolff's Make Lemonade (1993), this book is a welcome addition.
From the author's own website: "But when I told my sister about the book, she was thrilled. She said, 'A book like this could be used in schools to open up discussions about mental illness.' My sister and I are hopeful that the people who read Stop Pretending will come away from the experience feeling more compassion for the victims of mental illness. "