Circa Now by Amber McRee Turner

An eleven year old girl named Circa loses her beloved father in an accident and doesn’t know if she can depend on her sometimes-depressed mother to care for her and for her father’s memory.

I liked a lot of things about this book. Circa Monroe was a spunky protagonist; she reminded me of my youngest Z-baby. In fact, Circa’s father reminded me of Engineer Husband, a nurturing and very responsible presence for Circa and for her mom. I can imagine life around the Semicolon household being much like Circa’s life after dad if Engineer Husband were to exit this earth prematurely. I am not dealing with clinical depression, but Engineer Husband definitely helps me hold it together in so many ways.

I also liked that the only place that Circa’s mom feels safe and nurtured outside of her home is the church. If they don’t go anywhere else, Circa and her mom go to church, and there they feel loved and respected and supported. Church and churchiness aren’t at all the focus of the story; the church scenes are a very minor part of the novel. And I liked that aspect, too. The church is Circa’s family’s natural community, and it’s treated as a normal part of life.

Another insignificant (but significant to me) part of the novel was that Circa’s best friend, Nattie Boone, is black—or at least she has “braided hair” and “dark skin.” I liked that race was never mentioned and that the Boone family go to church with the Monroes and take care of them with sandwiches and hospitality and peanut butter pie. If the friendship between Circa and Nattie is at all unusual for small town south Georgia, there’s no indication of that barrier in the book. I really like that.

Then there’s Circa’s “disability” or abnormality: she was born without a pinkie finger on one hand. That, too, is a minor part of the plot, and it’s written very matter-of-fact, even though Circa does get teased by some boys, called “circus girl”. Circa is a competent, independent young lady who wouldn’t give a missing finger a second thought if a few bad apples didn’t bring it to her attention with their taunting.

The plot of Circa Now focuses on something else entirely, not Circa’s missing finger, not her mom’s depression, not church. The story is really about Circa’s attempts to work through her grief and loneliness after her father’s accident by continuing his work with photo restoration. Circa keeps making the “shopt” photo projects that her dad did just for fun, as a joke between the two of them. And she wants to continue working on the Wall of Memories that she and her dad were making for the nursing home of Alzheimer’s patients near their home. However, when Circa’s mom doesn’t want her to try to finish the nursing home photo restorations and when a strange boy who might be a magical result of the shopt photos shows up at their house, Circa doesn’t know what to do.

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This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets is the kind of book I should like very much, It’s a “problem novel” (think ABC After-School special, for those of you old enough to know what that was) about a teenage boy who has been abused by his parents and who is dealing with clinical depression (or bipolar disorder or something similarly challenging). The main character, James, is engaging and sympathetic. He hugs trees to cheer himself up, and he imagines a pigeon analyst, Dr Bird, who advises him on his mental and family issues. (I could only picture Dr. Bird as Mo Willems’s Pigeon, with glasses.) James is a fan of the poetry of Walt Whitman, and he’s a budding poet himself.

So, why did I only sorta, kinda like this book? I know one thing that bothered me: the implication that mental illness is caused by parental abuse or neglect. No, the book never said that James’s parents made him depressed and suicidal, but his sister is also depressed and angry and seeing a counselor. And a lot of James’s issues seem to be at least exacerbated by his parents, who by the way, are very one-dimensional, angry people. I understand that the book is written in first person from James’s point of view, and that he probably doesn’t see his parents as real people. For him they are “the Banshee” and “the Brute”. Still, the author could have used the plot and dialogue to tell us something about the parents that would make us see them as full, if not very likable, characters.

Or maybe I’m just coming at this book from a parent’s perspective, not that I’m terribly sympathetic with parents who beat and verbally abuse their children. Nevertheless, teens get depressed, and it often has nothing to do with their admittedly imperfect parents. (Do I sound defensive? Well, I do have family members who deal with depression.)

OK, so that said, I’ll tell you what I did like about this book. I liked Dr. Bird, the imaginary therapist, who actually gives sound advice to her “patient”. I liked the Walt Whitman quotations and allusions, even though I don’t generally care for Whitman, and I liked James’s self-awareness and intelligence. The narrative showed that people who are dealing with mental illness are still “normal” people. They’re smart; they write poetry; they hug trees; they have jobs; they go to school; they make sometimes good and sometimes bad choices.

I didn’t totally fall for Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets (oh, yeah, love the title) because of the parent angle, and it does include the obligatory crude language (briefly in comparison to other YA novels I’ve read lately). However, you might find it amazing, or at least enlightening.

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets is a finalist for the Cybils Awards in the category of Young Adult Fiction.