Review written by Jonathan Lavallee.
The beginning of Sure Signs of Crazy assures the reader that you’ve never met anyone like Sarah Nelson. Sarah feels isolated in her life, and it’s because she is. When she was two, her mother tried to kill her and her twin brother by filling up the kitchen sink with water and drowning them both. Sarah lived while her brother died. After the trials of both her parents, her father has been moving from place to place trying to escape the media and the stigma of having been accused of your child’s death. Now Sarah has a couple of dilemmas. She wants to avoid spending the summer with her grandparents and she wants to avoid her family tree project next year as a seventh grade student.
This is a very poignant story told from Sarah’s perspective as she tries to navigate her feelings about what’s happened. About the years her mother has been this absent figure in her life, about all the unknowns and all the stories that she’s only gotten through the media representations. About the years that her father has been there, and not been there. About how she has two dads, the one who is her dad and the one who falls asleep on the couch watching westerns and passed out on Jim Beam. About how she deals with her feelings, trying to fall in love, looking for her first kiss, the worry that she’s going to inherit whatever it was that made her mother try to kill her.
When I looked at this book, I immediately thought of the youngest child in my house. She loves this kind of book—it’s poignant and sad in many places, but never seems to wallow in self misery. Sarah has a lot of feelings, and her 13th birthday seems to be the turning point where she goes from feeling all these things internally to voicing what’s bothering her. If your tween enjoys this kind of story, then they will love this book. There isn’t a lot of action, so if you’ve got a reader who’s interested in going from amazing moment to amazing moment, the more sedate and introspective pace of this book might make their eyes glaze over.
Hopefully though, the writing will help any action reader past their boredom. The writing is interesting and thoughtful. Sarah as a character is always interested in words. There are all kinds of words in her life—words that she finds interesting, and trouble words that cause an unexpected or unwanted emotional response in people. There is a great focus on words; even the character that Sarah gets a crush on, Finn, goes to university as a linguist and etymologist. A good portion of the novel is Sarah’s optional summer project where she’s writing letters to Atticus Finch and talking about the lessons she feels she’s learned from To Kill a Mockingbird.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Sarah’s dad is an alcoholic. He started drinking during the trial and it’s become a part of her life. She knows where he hides the bottles of alcohol and in one moment where she’s angry and frustrated she fills one of his Jim Beam bottles with apple juice.
There’s a lot of pressure put on Sarah by herself and by her friend Lisa to get a boyfriend and french kiss someone. Lisa texts Sarah from summer camp to tell her that she’s had two boyfriends, and that she has successfully completed her goal of kissing someone.
Sarah tells Finn that she’s in love with him and wants to kiss him. He is 19 and just going to university and he lets her down gently, but it’s still painful and embarrassing to her.
Sarah’s minder for the summer, Charlotte, has a relationship with Christopher and Sarah witnesses an attempted rape on the front porch of Charlotte’s house. Finn breaks it up, but Sarah feels awful for lying on the grass during the incident and not saying anything.
Death is the underpinning of the story. It’s the reason why Sarah doesn’t have a mother. The trials after her brother’s death are why they’re always moving. Mr. Dupree, one of the neighbours, dies and they have to help set up the funeral with Mrs. Dupree.
Family is shown to be something that breaks down. Sarah’s family is broken from the beginning, and it’s the backdrop to the story. Her father is an alcoholic, her mother tried to kill her when she was young, and she feels that there’s a huge distance between herself and her grandparents. She has an aunt that no one else likes, but she feels a certain connection with to the point where, when she’s planning on running away, she intends to go to that aunt. There are moments when Sarah writes that she wishes that Atticus Finch was her father because he at least was a father, and she feels that her dad is completely absent from her life.
Finn has a hard time with his family and does what he can to avoid being at home when his mother is there.
There’s a great line at the end of the book, which I believe I’ve probably heard somewhere before, but it fits wonderfully here. Sarah’s dad tells her: “There’s the parent you want and the parent you have. If you’re lucky, sometimes they are the same person.”
Sure Signs of Crazy takes your tween through an emotional introspection that is probably just the right kind of intensity for your 10 year old tween or higher. If you’ve got a tween who’s into emotional stories and people overcoming difficulties, then you should quickly recommend this book.