When I was in third grade, I reluctantly picked up There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom by Louis Sachar and never put it down again.
Before reading it, I had snickered at the title with my friends, wondering who would read such an ugly looking book with such an ugly title, but out of curiosity, I eventually started to read and was immediately pulled into the world of Bradley Chalker, the meanest boy in school. After reading, I thought the cover, with girls screaming and a boy’s horrified face was misleading and disrespectful to this beautiful story of a boy struggling to be accepted and loved in the face of what even at a young age, I recognized as something much deeper than “the meanest boy in school.” I didn’t have the words then, but it was clear that Bradley was struggling with some kind of mental illness.
In Jennifer Niven’s beautiful novel, All the Bright Places, Theodore Finch reminds me of Bradley all grown up. We meet “Finch” with the opening words “Is today a good day to die?” He is standing on standing on the ledge of the school bell tower contemplating his future until an unexpected savior, Violet Markey, contemplating her own future, helps him step down, thus beginning an unexpected friendship.
While Finch struggles with mental illness, Violet is struggling with her own demons. Violet is known as “the girl whose sister died” after a tragic car accident that claimed the life of Eleanor Markey-Violet’s sister, writing partner and best friend.
Finch and Violet’s unlikely friendship grows as the two work on a school project together, discovering small town landmarks across the state of Indiana.
The book shifts first person narratives between Finch and Violet and the reader is easily enchanted by both voices. In fact, using the two voices becomes a necessary part of the narrative to help us see both what it is like to live with mental illness and what it is like to love someone with mental illness. As a reader, I was able to feel empathy for both parties and the shifting narrative furthered the importance of talking about this very real issue.
Another feature of the book is the supporting characters. This is tricky in young adult writing where a settings often include high schools and an overwhelming number of characters have to be developed or given some voice. The supporting characters in the book, from students to teachers to parents to siblings still have shape and voice. The reader can picture them as integral parts of the plot and not just add-ons. This also helps the reader easily navigate through the 383 pages of the book.
One of my favorite quotes from the book comes not necessarily from the main characters (although there are many of those as well) but it comes from Violet quoting Natalia Ginzburg: “It seemed to us that his sadness was that of a boy, the voluptuous heedless melancholy of a boy who has still not come down to earth, and moves in the arid, solitary world of dreams.” Halfway through the book, Finch, our voluptuous heedless melancholy of a boy, is able to give a name to his mental illness: Bipolar Disorder.
Louis Sachar’s Bradley never got a label beyond that of the meanest boy in school, but he deserved so much more than that. Bradley deserved love, recognition and help; even a third grader knew that. Hopefully the more we talk about and read about the nature of mental illness, the more the stigmas will disintegrate and the more we can provide help and support for those who need it most.