Two years ago, a student named Paige gave a book talk about Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story. She started the book talk by saying it was one of the best books she has ever read and encouraged anyone who had someone s/he loved that suffered from mental illness to read the book to better understand what someone dealing with mental illness goes through.
I always remembered Paige’s book talk both because growing up in a household of just pray it out or tough it out, I had long been confused about the nature of mental illness, and I always have remembered Paige’s book talk because as she spoke, it was clear how someone very important to her was the inspiration for her choosing the book.
I got my chance to recommend this book one spring when a student knocked on my door and said, “Mrs. Mattern needs you to recommend a couple books for students to read.”
“What kind of student?” I asked. “Boy? Girl? Freshman? Senior?”
“Just a student,” she replied. “Anyone.”
“Okay…” I quickly looked over the crowded bookshelves in my room, looking for a quick variety of books. I pulled out Tears of a Tiger–accessible to students of any age and a good hook into the Hazlewood High series, Ophelia Speaks–works for non-fiction fans and the short stories arranged by topics can keep a reluctant reader going and then my eyes fell on It’s Kind of a Funny Story and I remembered Paige’s book talk and I remembered the book had a male protagonist. I handed the three books to the student and she took them to Mrs. Mattern, the teacher next door, who, unbeknownst to me, was putting them on a summer reading list for her incoming seniors. (Side Note: Carrie Mattern is an author herself–check out her website, www.carriemattern.com)
Although I remembered Paige’s book talk and I had just recommended that students read this book, I had actually never read it myself. So this summer I followed my own summer reading assignment and read It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and I’m sorry I waited this long to read it.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story is the story of 15-year-old Craig and his five-day stay in the mental ward of a hospital. Craig is attending Executive Pre-Professional, an intense, highly competitive New York City high school where he is “failing” with his 93 percents and struggling to catch up to his classmates. Pressures at school and social struggles cause Craig to eventually decide to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, ending his life. Before he does so, Craig calls a suicide hotline and he is convinced to check himself into the hospital.
While at the hospital, Craig meets an interesting collection of characters including his Egyptian roommate Muqtada and Noelle, another teenage patient who struggles with self-mutilation. Through his time in the psychiatric ward, Craig is able to learn a lot about himself and where he fits in.
Like Paige said in her book talk, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, told in first person from Craig’s point of view, helps readers better understand what mental illness looks like. The author wrote the book after spending time in a psychiatric ward himself.
Besides the importance of learning about mental illness and specifically, Craig’s struggle, the book is also enjoyable because of the realness and freshness of the character voices. Vizzini captures a teenage voice well without being condescending. His characters discuss smoking pot, sex and depression in ways that seem very real without being preachy or, on the other extreme, there for salacious shock value, and this is something to be appreciated.
It has always been harder to sell reading to my male students as compared to the females, so while the length of this book might initially frighten off some reluctant readers, if I can just get a boy to read a few pages, I am sure he will be hooked by the authenticity in Craig’s voice and his experiences. I am happy that I quickly picked this book to recommend for summer reading and can’t wait to discuss it with anyone who decided to take a chance with it.