Review: OCDaniel

image is a blue book cover with numbers written all over it, some crossed out... The title "OCDaniel" is in black text over a q-tip with yellow hair and a hand-drawn face.

Genre: middle grades contemporary

Release date: April 12, 2016; this book is probably at your local library!

Synopsis: Daniel is a young teen who is struggling to find his place in the world — to find his friendships, to find his place in class and on his football team, to navigate early romance… Add to all the typical teen self-discovery, he also struggles with high levels of anxiety and needing to complete intricate routines to stave off those fears. And then Daniel meets Sara, who needs his help to solve the mystery of where her father is. Sara, who is honest about her own journey with mental illness.

Disabilities represented: primarily focused on obsessive-compulsive disorder, but also discusses depression, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses

Note: The author has obsessive-compulsive disorder and writes about the autobiographical components of this story in his author’s note at the end of the novel. I’ve included a major spoiler at the end of this review, with a warning if you would like to avoid it.

Overall: 5/5 stars.

Review:

“Then there is only dread—the kind that sits on your back and claws at your head and doesn’t let you see happiness or hope or anything.”

I loved this book. Loved. King captures the internal feelings that come with compulsions so well that you may feel them in your own stomach. He captures the desperation, the feeling different, the confusion when they first begin. The way they cannot, cannot be ignored. He captures it all — but he does so without adding to the shame and stigma that our world so often perpetuates. If anything, over the course of the novel, he slowly peels back that shame that readers may feel as he peels it back from Daniel.

My favorite, though, is Sara… Sara lists her labels with nonchalance, as if they are just part of who she is. Sara, who talks about medication and therapy and how helpful it can be to know who you are. Sara, who shows that you can have mental illness and be brilliant and loving and brilliant. Sara, who shows that true friendship is. Sara takes the novel from a 4 star to a 5 star for me.

The one element that didn’t really hit home for me was Daniel’s short story excerpts. Periodically throughout the novel, we read Daniel’s own writing about a boy who feels alone. I understand the intention behind these pieces, but they really interrupted my reading flow. Others may find that they add to the emotional nuance.

Be sure to read the author’s note at the end. I appreciated King contrasting true OCD with the colloquial “I’m so OCD” that everyone throws around. It’s not the same.

MAJOR spoiler ahead:

One warning — Sara’s dad disappeared because he committed suicide due to depression. It is not idealized or made pretty in the way that a book like Thirteen Reasons Why does. And I don’t think the book should be avoided. I do think parents may want to use that as a conversation starter with their children. While this is especially true if you, like me, parent a child with mental illness, it is something that we can all discuss more with our children. They need to know the early signs of depression, where to go for help, and what to do if they feel like that. Teenage suicide is on the increase, at the highest number it has been in 20 years. We need to be proactive in giving our children the skills and supports that will help decrease their risk.

Review: It’s My Life

cover image of It's My Life -- teal background with profile image of teen wearing pink baseball cap, hair covering her face.

Genre: young adult contemporary

Release date: January 1, 2020

Synopsis: It’s My Life follows Jenna, as she struggles with growing up, figuring out who she is, and how her disability plays into that. She navigates family, friendship, and finding her voice, both at school and as the director of her own care. The author writes that this book is primarily not about her disability, but about a girl who “believes something about herself that is not true”. However, Jenna’s negative feelings around her disability drive the bulk of the plot points and are central to the story.

Disabilities represented: cerebral palsy, depression

Disclosure: I received digital access to the ARC in exchange for my review, which was shared on Edelweiss.

Review contains spoilers.

I found It’s My Life choppy and disorganized. First person perspective can be challenging for authors. In this case Jenna’s thoughts come through as pressured, fast-paced, and highly disorganized. The plot contained significant jump points with weak transitions. I often found myself wondering, “How did we get here?” or “Would this really happen?” I mean, would someone’s uncle really randomly help them complete lal the paperwork for medical emancipation out of nowhere? The text message conversations between Jenna and her crush are especially choppy, as was the whole “cat-fishing” scheme. Jenna spends so much of the novel as her alter-ego that I honestly forgot her name several times.

I wanted to love this book. I did. I think there is a real dearth of coming of age novels for teens with disabilities. They face the same struggles as any teen, but with the added stress of a society that doesn’t often accommodate them. I think that following Jenna’s struggle for medical autonomy, the constant decision-making, the risk/benefit analysis of “is this treatment worth it? are these side effects worth it? for what purpose?” would have yielded a whole depth of emotions and plot to explore. I would have loved for that to be at the forefront. Instead, I struggled to understand whether this book was about Jenna’s understanding of her disability (which was very, very negative), about her struggle to have a “normal” life, about her depression, about her friendships… I just don’t even know.

I will say that I very much thing that Ramey wanted to portray to the world that Jenna is capable and brilliant and perfect, as she is. I do not think that Ramey herself has a negative view of cerebral palsy. She especially portrayed Jenna’s family beautifully. There’s a moment between Jenna and Jenna’s dad, towards the end of the book. Jenna asks if he ever had to grieve the diagnosis of cerebral palsy. He talks about how, from the beginning, he saw what a fighter she was and how beautiful and perfect she was, as herself, completely. It was a heart cracking moment — and an unconditional love that I wish more people had the privilege to experience.

So, no, I don’t think that Ramey is intentionally ableist. I don’t think she believes the world would be better without Jenna, or that Jenna would be better without her disability. The ableism in this novel is the subtle stuff, the “I don’t like the word disability” stuff. Late in the novel, when Jenna meets another person with a disability, the other person says she runs a club at her college for students with disabilities. The other person, though, talks about how she prefers the term “differently abled” or something (and I rolled my eyes). Similarly, of course the happy ending for this novel is that Jenna gets a baclofen pump, the baclofen pump works beautifully, and Jenna’s whole life is changed! She is less physically impacted! Hurray! (Sense the sarcasm.)

I do think this is a risk when well-meaning professionals write from the perspective of a disability. We have to really spend a lot of time analyzing what we are writing to see if we are unintentionally reflecting the ableist culture we live in, or if we are using our writing to subvert that oppression. I think that It’s My Life could have done with a lot more subversion.