Book Review: If You Feel Too Much

if you feel too much cover

Tworkowski, Jamie. If You Feel Too Much: Thoughts on Things Found and Lost and Hoped For.    New York: TarcherPerigee, 2015. Print.

As I am writing this, I am merely weeks away from a brand new school year. The days to come will be filled with lots of work—setting up my classroom, writing and printing my syllabus, deciding what to cover in those important first days and weeks and months. Amid the back-to-school mania, I must pause and remember that my goal should be to provide a safe, caring space for my students, to tell them that they are valuable and loved and that they can live their best possible life.

That is why I am glad to have recently read Jamie Tworkowski’s If You Feel Too Much.

At last month’s VidCon, I spotted a booth from the suicide prevention organization To Write Love on Her Arms. Like all educators, I know students who have struggled with self-harming behaviors and attempted suicide. I am always looking for resources to place in my classroom that might be of some help to a struggling student, so I eagerly purchased a book at the booth written by Tworkowski, the organization’s founder.

If You Feel Too Much is a collection of short prose and blog posts that Tworkowski has written throughout his journey with TWLOHA. The collection spans nearly ten years and follows Tworkoski from his early years selling surfing equipment to his heavy responsibilities spearheading an important charity. Tworkowski doesn’t hide from tough topics—he discusses his growing distance from his father, his own battle with depression, his messy break-ups, and his fights with close friends and business partners. He talks of his grief after losing friends to suicide and cancer, and his uncertainty that he will ever find love or fulfillment. By the book’s end, Tworkowski urges the reader to examine their own story and find the strength not to give up. As he says in the collection’s last piece, “We will see you tomorrow.”

For those familiar with To Write Love on Her Arms, the book will reaffirm all of the positive work Tworkowski has done bringing awareness to mental health issues. His honesty is both refreshing and impactful. Some self-help books can be preachy, but since Tworkowski’s advice is dispensed from his own struggles, it is more relatable and easier to swallow. The pieces are also beautifully and lyrically written. Some could easily double as poems or songs.

My biggest struggle with If You Feel Too Much is that the pieces are presented without context; therefore, some parts of the book made me feel a little lost. Jason Russell is my Friend, for example, talked about the very public meltdown of Jason Russell, the founder of an organization called Invisible Children. I had to research Jason Russell and Invisible Children before I could continue reading, which certainly lessened the impact of the piece.

Overall, this book is a valuable resource that every classroom teacher should consider purchasing for their bookshelves. I’m planning to photo copy and display Towrkowski’s piece “There Is Still Some Time” in my classroom, a reminder to my students to seek help and comfort in moments of hopelessness.

Book Review: Immaculate

immaculate

Detweiler, Katelyn. Immaculate. New York: Viking for Young Readers, 2015. Print.

I love a good allusion. Just ask my students.

Maybe that’s why I felt compelled to read Immaculate. I first saw the book’s cover on the Penguin Teen Facebook Page—an artistic photograph of a young girl lying down, her arms wrapped around her midsection. The description mentioned a seventeen-year-old pregnant virgin protagonist, an allusion to the Virgin Mary. It was obvious click bait, but it worked on me. Within minutes, I downloaded the book to my Kindle app.

Seventeen-year-old Mina (aka Menius) is an academic, ambitious, and relatively innocent high school student. The course of her life is altered during a late night waitressing shift at the local pizzeria. A mysterious elderly customer tells Mina:

“It’s time. We’ve decided that you’re ready, that everyone’s ready. The longer we      wait, the more trouble we’ll see, and I think that the world has seen enough trouble, don’t you?”

Understandably freaked out, Mina makes a quick exit. Months later, she begins to feel ill: extreme fatigue, nausea, and aches and pains. The positive pregnancy test comes as a surprise since Mina has never had sex. After a doctor confirms the diagnosis, she must tell her parents, friends, and boyfriend and deal with their varying levels of disbelief and anger.

Mina’s pregnancy and claims of virginity make her the target of mean-spirited jokes at school. The creation of a gossipy website chronicling her ordeal—appropriately named The Virgin Mina—allows news of the alleged miracle to trickle throughout the country and world, resulting in Mina receiving mail from as far away as Indonesia. As Mina’s story continues to spread, two specific camps begin to emerge. One group vehemently believes that Mina’s claims are blasphemous; another sees her as a saintly figure who can cure diseases with her touch and personal belongings. Both groups cause Mina to fear for her safety and that of her unborn child. As her due date looms closer, Mina realizes she must make some tough decisions.

Perhaps it is the English teacher in me, but the parts of the novel I found especially poignant occurred when Mina was alluding to the most famous pregnant virgin. Some examples: the pizzeria where Mina works is decorated in statues of the Virgin Mary. Teasing classmates sing “We Three Kings” to Mina in the cafeteria. And, in a particularly moving scene, Mina breaks down while viewing a life size, handmade nativity in a Sunday school class. The connection is pretty blatant, but not enough to make the reader roll their eyes.

I did feel as though the narration was bogged down with unnecessary details. I lost track of the number of times Mina mentioned her blue eyes or that her father and sister had blue eyes, too. The nickname “Meen”, which appears several times in dialogue, always made me wince. And many supporting characters felt flat to me: Mina’s best friends Izzy and Hannah; Arielle, the creator of The Virgin Mina website; even Mina’s eventual love interest, Jesse. Spacey and sometimes humorously naive, a bit of Jesse’s back story would have really strengthened the book.

That being said, would I recommend Immaculate to my students? Yes, with some reservations. It’s a bit far-fetched but still makes some interesting commentary on societal cynicism. The book raises questions worth debating: When did we stop believing in miracles? Why do we demand proof before we’ll believe anything that goes against our knowledge of science and reason? Overall, I felt Immaculate had an intriguing premise, and the thematic ideas of ostracism and bullying are relatable to teens and adults alike.