Colbert, Brandy. Little & Lion. Little Brown, 2017.
As a high school teacher and avid reader, I’ve become familiar with the continuously growing roster of popular YA authors. It’s rare—and therefore extremely exciting—for me to come across an unfamiliar author. While reading the YA anthology Summer Days and Summer Nights, I saw many names and writing styles I knew—Veronica Roth, Cassandra Clare, Lev Grossman. But my favorite story came from an author I’d never read: Brandy Colbert. I went to Amazon and quickly purchased her latest novel, Little & Lion.
Suzette is a proud member of a diverse, blended family: she’s close to her stepfather, Saul, and stepbrother Lionel. She and her mother even convert to Judaism, though, as an African-American, Suzette must deal with her share of insensitive questions. She and Lionel (nicknamed “Little” and “Lion” respectively) share a unique bond, one that is tested when Lion has a strange, violent outburst. Lion is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and while he struggles and tries a myriad of medications, Suzette’s parents worry that she is too preoccupied with her brother’s health. They send her away to boarding school in Massachusetts.
When Suzette returns home for the summer, many things have changed—her brother appears to be in better health, while she is reeling following an abrupt, messy breakup with her roommate, Iris. Suzette lands a part-time job at a florist where she feels a pull toward her tattooed, spunky co-worker, Rafaela. But when Lion meets and expresses an interest in Rafaela, Suzette feels conflicted. This is further complicated by a secret Lion shares with Suzette alone: he is shirking his medication. Will Suzette find the courage to tell their parents? Will Lion function without the assistance of his medication? Will Suzette stay with her family in LA or return to the boarding school in the Fall?
Little & Lion inspires the reader to think about family—how they come in many shapes and sizes, and how the family we choose often means more to us than a biological connection. It also highlights the helplessness a family member feels when someone they love struggles with mental illness. Suzette, too, is a fantastic protagonist. Her feelings of devotion and concern are often at odds with her feelings of jealousy and resentment, which makes her relatable and human.
I struggled with the characterization of Rafaela—I couldn’t decide if she was bold and unpredictable or just a troublemaker. Some of her actions seemed rash and unkind and caused me to dislike her almost immediately.
I could certainly see using passages from Little & Lion to springboard conversations about mental illness or blended families. The book would likely be a popular and relevant choice in a classroom library. I can’t wait to read more of Colbert’s work—her clear, honest writing style will be attractive to both teenage and adult readers.