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March Discussion – All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

brightplacesOur book choice for this month All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven provoked some animated discussion and difference of opinion.  At the outset I will reaffirm how wonderful it is to have such a wide variety of teaching and life experience that we all bring to our dialogue about controversial and thought provoking issues.  Of course, we are all operating within our own personal and moral frameworks, but also have external limitations placed on us as we are choosing novels for our libraries based on our client base.  We are accountable, with varying restrictions, to Education QLD, Catholic Education, School Administrations and Boards and parents groups. Each school has a unique group of students, history, parental expectations and philosophy.

We began by discussing the prevalence in 2014-15 of what was described as “grim lit” novels.  Novels that deal with depictions of mental illnesses are certainly topical.  As is usual in publishing we are seeing trends in YA – after the popularity of vampires, paranormal, dystopia and “sick lit” over the past few years we are now seeing a rise of issue based novels. OCD, bipolar, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm and a myriad of other conditions have made their appearance in YA novels in recent times with mixed success.  Of course, suicide has been prominent in these novels – some are written from the suicidal teen’s point of view, POV of the friend/family member of a teen who has died and even from teens who are looking online for a suicide partner or group.

We were divided about the issue of having books like this in the library and some of our t-ls are concerned and perhaps even a little alarmed about stocking some titles.  As we stated over and again – these issues are dealt with very well in some books and not so well in others and therefore it is essential that the t-ls and teachers read the books that appeal to teen audiences.  Opinions varied from outright rejection of this particular text, cautious lending only to senior readers, to placing openly on the shelves.  We decided that it would not be a book that would be chosen as a class novel for these reasons.

Whatever action is taken by the individual school we are right to feel some apprehension.  Some of our members felt that as they had no counseling or psychology backgrounds they were ill-equipped to deal with these issues but this did not negate how important these books can be.  Others mentioned the statistics of mental illness in our society and therefore students are often looking for books with characters facing the same challenges that they face.

A few sobering facts:
  • Around one million Australian adults and 100,000 young people live with depression each year.
  • On average, one in five people will experience depression in their lives; one in four females and one in six males.
  • Among young Australians aged 12-25 years, depression is the most common mental health problem.
  • Around one-in-ten young Australians will experience an anxiety disorder in any given 12-month period.
  • At least one third of young people have had an episode of mental illness by the age of 25 years.
  • Almost half the total population (45.5%) experience a mental health disorder at some point in their lifetime. (http://mhaustralia.org/sites/default/files/imported/component/rsfiles/factsheets/statistics_on_mental_health.pdf)

It was interesting to note that the Penguin website provides this disclaimer, “Please be advised that this novel explores themes and issues that may be disturbing or upsetting to some individuals. These include self-harm, mental illness and grief.” What we acknowledged was that this particular text will be popular, particularly as it has been optioned as a film with Elle Fanning announced as the lead.  Going from past experience with the success of other novel to film projects such as The Hunger Games, If I Stay, Divergent and The Fault in our Stars there will be many more young people queuing to read this book.  How even more essential it is that we, as their educators, can have some understanding of the topics that interest them. Some members also felt that given the plethora of information out on the internet regarding suicide, it is unlikely that reading a novel would stimulate those thoughts in students when there are much more accessible forms of communication available to them.

Controversial subject matter aside, most of the members appreciated the lyrical and imaginative writing in this novel. In fact, the descriptions of Theodore floating peacefully and letting go in the water were scarily enticing. Many of the members said how much they loved this book and related to the characters. It was mentioned that it was one of the best examples of characterization of a young male character in YA that some had read.  Using the geography project as a plot device to explore the emerging relationship between Violet and Theodore was a clever technique. Many of us also enjoyed the chapters told in alternate point of view. What saddened many of the readers was that we felt Theodore was let down by many of the adults in his life including his undiagnosed, abusive father, his emotionally absent mother and he was mismanaged by the school counselor and administration.  We wondered about the lack of duty of care shown by the school and their contact with Theodore’s parents.

Bullying and its consequences were also discussed and we were horrified by the article in the school paper and the inability of the school system to deal effectively with this issue.  There is a great deal to like about this book and Violet and Theodore both provide interesting character studies. As an offshoot from this book there is a website/blog called “Germ” http://www.germmagazine.com/ as inspired by the character of Violet and aimed quite deliberately at the female teen market.

It was noted that although there was despair in this novel there was also hope.  Perhaps some teen readers will come away from reading this with a sense of hope by relating to the characters who do handle their problems without resorting to suicide.  It is after all through getting to know Theodore that Violet concedes that she is not responsible for the actions of others, she learns self-forgiveness, accepts her grief and realises that she was/is indeed loved and that the world is waiting for her.

We also had some discussion over the prevalence of quirky, intelligent male characters such as Miles in Looking for Alaska (who quotes famous last words), Augustus in The Fault in Our Stars and Theodore (who in this case woos Violet with quotes from Sylvia Plath).  We did wonder how many of these lit boyfriends actually do exist and how successful they are with relationships in reality; certainly they are very popular with the female teen readership in our schools.

Thanks to everyone for their participation.  Although we promise that not every book this year will be as heavy, next month’s book The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley is a powerful and thought-provoking read.  We look forward to hearing your thoughts.