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 Im 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
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 hou r/ ... 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.
Stop Pretending is a tour de force debut. ... it reads faster than a fast-paced novel. ... it celebrates truth-telling, and has a purity and passion that speaks to the heart ... —Liz Rosenberg
This revised edition of Sones’s highly praised poetry/novel (her first publication) closely relates to Sones’s personal history, and the afterword explains how her older sister (at 19) was placed in a mental institution with manic-depressive illness when Sones herself was 13 years old. She explains that her sister eventually recovered with the help of medication and therapy and that she fully supports this book because it will help teenagers understand mental illness and the family crisis such illness causes. There is a list at the end of the book of organizations to contact if readers are worried about their own mental health or that of a member of their family.
The poetry is compelling. It is so heartfelt: the pain and confusion of a young teenager when her family life
dissolves into chaos because of mental illness. The older sister in Stop Pretending is hospitalized for months. Today, most patients are in a 72-hour hold situation, with medications and therapy used on an out patient basis. This only means that family today will have their ill family member living in their household, not “put away” in a hospital—so the poetry of Sones is relevant whatever the ultimate therapy. This book is an ALA Best Book for YA’s; it won the Christopher Award and several poetry prizes. —Claire Rossner
This is one of the most beautiful and disturbing books aimed at young people that I have ever read. Beautiful not just in its use of free verse, but in the use of language and images that brings even mundane subject to life. The author/narrator’s older sister suffers a mental breakdown on Christmas Eve and their family will never be the same. The sister is hospitalized. Suddenly, mother and father are strangers to the child and to each other, and the child is either begging them to be themselves again or feeling that it could easily have been she that is in the hospital ward; she just wants to run away. Fortunately, instead of running, she chose to write. The poetry is absolutely wonderful—“When I was lost / you were the one / who found me / Now you’re the one who’s lost / and I can’t find you anywhere.” And—“It seems/ like Sister is the crazy one, / but what / if it’s really the other way around / and it’s / actually / me who's the crazy one, / only I’m so crazy, I think it’s her?” For anyone who has actually had this experience, the book can only be read in short doses, for anyone who hasn’t, it’s a fantastic view of a world we would probably not want to be a part of. —Judy Silverman
The subtitle of Stop Pretending says it all: “What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy.” In a sequence of short, intense poems based on the author’s own experiences, a 13-year-old girl suffers through her shifting feelings about her sibling’s mental illness. She recalls the terror of the Christmas Eve when Sister was suddenly transformed into a stranger; the horror of visiting Sister in the hospital and finding her rocking on all fours; the fear that her friends will find out; her own worry that she, too, may lose her mind; and her wistful memories of Sister as she was before. More complex emotions are also explored, such as her irrational suspicion that Sister may be deliberately acting crazy, as poignantly expressed in the title poem: “Stop pretending./ Right this minute. / Don’t you tell me / you don’t know me. / Stop this crazy act / and show me / that you haven’t changed. / Stop pretending / you’re deranged.” Gradually, as Sister begins to recover, the girl is able to find hope and again take pleasure in her own life. Blank verse is perfect for a story with such heightened emotion, and is a format that has been used with great success in other fine novels for teens, notably the Newbery-award winning Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse, and Robert Cormier’s boyhood memoir, Frenchtown Summer. Teen readers may even be so inspired as to try their own hand at this challenging but satisfying form. —Patty Campbell