Review (Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy)

Bibliography: Sones, Sonya. Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy. New York, New York: HarperTeen, 1999. ISBN-13: 978-0439250702.

Plot Summary: On Christmas Eve, Cookie’s older sister has a mental breakdown. Cookie’s sister is eventually placed in a psychiatric ward. Cookie grapples with many things after this happens. Her parents fighting, and she feels isolated in both home and school. Cookie fears how her friends and peers will view her once they find out that her sister is mentally ill, “Sometimes/ I worry that/ the truth will break out all/over my face, like a fresh crop/of zits.”

Cookie also worries that whatever her sister is dealing with, she may have it. This fear goes as far as to form into this idea (this hope) that her sister may be adopted, “She’s not my real sister./ I don’t have/ any/ of the same genes as her,/ not one single same gene,/ not one/single/insane/gene.” Cookie is ashamed, Cookie is angry, Cookie is in despair. Cookie is going through what many people do when they are coming to terms that a loved one is sick and needs help and treatment. As the months go by, there are ups and downs in Cookie’s life where she learns to accept what her sister is going through, discovers who her real friends are, and even falls in love with an understanding boy. Little by little, poem by poem, Cookie grows up, and, through all that, never stops loving her sister.

Critical Analysis: This is not an easy book. It is not an easy topic. This is why this verse book is significant today. Sones based this book on her own journal when her sister was taken to the psychiatric ward. Sones would have been the same age as Cookie in the early 1960s, but the book never specifies the time it is set in. We only know that Cookie is twelve and eventually turns thirteen. There is a brevity to this work, especially at the beginning as, poem by poem, Cookie slices into the many emotions toiling inside her. The dissection of the many things going on is further emphasized by most of the falling rhythm Sones uses.

Sones also uses rhyme for an eerie effect in “Sister’s Voices,” where “She tried to block them out, but couldn’t make/ them go away./ The voices asked her why/ she’d lost her mind. Her hands began to shake.” Sones also likes to use only one word for certain lines of the poem as a way to establish the harsh thoughts and emotions Cookie is dealing with.

Cookie later on develops an interest in photography, but the reader may see hints of this with the way the book is arranged. The poems are all titled and they look similar to how one captions a photograph, such as “Boston,” or “In English Class,” or “Her Self-Portrait.” These poems indicate that these are snapshots of both Cookie’s life, but also snapshots of what goes on in her own mind.

While the poetry is written in a clean-cut way, Sones does not hesitate to showcase uncomfortable things, especially with imagery. During art class, Cookie draws herself and her parents and it is unsettling. “I’m drawing my sister/ with sauces for eyes./ The saucers are spinning out sparks./ I’m drawing my mother/ with zippers for eyes./ The zippers are zipped up tight./ I’m drawing my father/ with windows for eyes./ The winds are broken and cracked./ I’m drawing myself/ without any eyes/ at all.” Unnerving, but it perfectly encapsulates what Cookie is feeling.

The imagery does not just end with Cookie’s emotions. She also uses it to fully paint to the reader the extent of her sister’s illness. In one visit, she describes her as feral. She acts feral the way she freezes her hands “like rabbits freeze when danger’s near,” and she is later “hissing” her words to Cookie. The book does not hesitate to show that Cookie’s family is going through a difficult period, and that Cookie’s sister can’t simply be cured.

This book is a raw book. It is hopeful, but it is raw, and it can be a great introduction on how mental health is viewed and treated for young readers. Cookie’s sister does get better (but, like I said, she isn’t cured) and there is an optimism entwined with that uncertainty throughout the second half of novel. The author’s own notes state that her sister now takes medication after undergoing several treatments. The real-life Cookie’s sister is now married and has become a librarian. She also writes and draws and does volunteer work. This is an excellent verse book to teach readers compassion and empathy towards mentally ill people.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

Awards and Honors: Winner of the 2000 Claudia Lewis Award for Poetry; Winner of Myra Cohn Livingston Poetry Award (2000); chosen for the ALA Best Book for Young Adults (2000), and the ALA Popular Paperback for Young Adults (2000.)

Following excerpt is from Kirkus Reviews, posted online on May 20, 2010 and originally written October 31, 1999:

“Collected, [the poems] 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.”

Connection: Use this book for teens as a way for them to create their own journals but only write poetry in them, this will help them express themselves. Another way to use this book is to facilitate a group conversation about mental health and what are the good and bad ways of handling someone with mental illness.

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