Stop Pretending: what happened when my big sister went crazy by Sonya Sones

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Bibliography

Sones, Sonya. Stop Pretending: what happened when my big sister went crazy. New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1999. ISBN 9780064462181

Plot Summary

Sonya Sones draws on memories and journals from a time when she was almost thirteen and her nineteen year old sister had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized for a time. Sones uses a series of poems to express, through her main character Cookie, what she went through during that time and how she was able to eventually come to terms with the situation and deal with it.

Critical Analysis

In this free verse novel, Sones creates a main character in almost thirteen year old Cookie, who tells the story of when Sones’ own sister had a nervous breakdown. Cookie writes her experiences and feelings in a series of mostly one page poems, with a handful of them taking up two or even three pages. The author includes some notes at the end to explain to readers that the book is based on her actual experiences and was taken from the journals she wrote during this time in her life. This book deals with some serious issues and is most suited for slightly older children such as middle grades and up.

The rhythms in Sones’ book are sometimes staccato, other times smooth and lyrical, depending on the subject of each poem. For example, when Cookie’s parents make her go see a psychiatrist, she uses short sentences with a lot of periods at first, creating a choppy rhythm to indicate her discomfort- “I don’t/want to be here./My parents made me come.” Later on in the book, when Cookie has met a boy and begins to feel normal again, her poems display the more lyrical rhythm as she describes an encounter with John “Walking home/together,/our fingers laced,/a thrilling silence/connects us.”

Despite the free verse form, some of the poems feature rhyming such as a poem titled, “It’s Been Forever”- “Ollee ollee oxen free./Show yourself./You’re scaring me./Come out,/come out,/wherever you are./You’ve taken this thing/way/too far.” In using a popular children’s game and the accompanying rhyme to describe how long it has been since she has seen her sister as she remembers her, Cookie reminds the reader of her innocence as a child and hints at the fact that she feels like maybe this is a game and her sister could just end it at any moment and return to normal.

Sones employs several literary devices to provide depth to her words. In one of the shortest poems in the book, “The Truth Is”, Cookie says, “I don’t want to see you./I dread it./There./I’ve said it.” This use of short, abrupt lines of text and the assonance of dread/said make the words seems as if they are spewed from Cookie’s mouth; like if she doesn’t get them out quickly, they won’t come out at all, but they must come out. Another example of assonance is found in the poem on the adjacent page and is interwoven this time with an example of consonance, “Balmy,/bonkers,/daffy,/loco, loony,/raving,/nutty,/psycho, buggy,/cuckoo,/batty,/wacko,”. These two literary devices combine to create a bouncing rhythm and indicate the importance of this particular poem, for it is in this poem that Cookie lays to rest any thoughts that she is the one that is crazy. Cookie’s next phase in dealing with her situation is worrying about and being upset about what other people think and say about her, her family, and her sister. One day during class, she discovers a note “COOKIE’S SISTER IS CUCKOO”  that one of her classmates was passing around the room. Even though Cookie previously called her sister this same word, the use of capital letters and the alliteration show the reader that it is not acceptable for other people to use this word and it angers Cookie.

Sones’ use of spacing in words and lines also demonstrates concrete ideas throughout the book. The poem that tells when Cookie mustered the courage to tell her two best friends about her sister is titled “MOLLY, KATE,         AND ME”. The deliberately large space between the other two girls and Cookie shows the gap the two girls place between themselves and Cookie after they learn of her sister’s condition.

Board games are a recurring theme in the book as well. Approximately one third of the way through the book, there is a poem entitled, “Trying to Play Monopoly”. This venture does not turn out well, ending with Cookie’s sister throwing a tantrum, but twice during the poem, Sones uses similes to help create vivid pictures of the uncomfortableness and intensity of the event. Cookie describes the experience as “about as much fun as being stung by a bee,”and when her sister yells and throws things at the end, she says, “my stunned parents stare,/like witnesses at a car crash.” The last poem of the book, “In the Visiting Room”, features the family playing another board game, this time Scrabble. This scene goes much differently than the last though. In stark juxtaposition to the monopoly game, this time the family is smiling and joking with one another and the for the last word of the book, Cookie plays “BETTER” on the Scrabble board.

The reader is taken on the emotional journey with Cookie in this book and is never left wondering how the she feels at any given moment. The stages of denial, fear, acceptance, and beginning the road to recovery are raw and real and never feel contrived. Sones does an excellent job creating vivid images with her word choice, her use of literary devices, and her honesty. Stop Pretending is not only a great example of a novel in verse, it is a helpful tool for anyone dealing with a similar situation to Cookie’s.

Review Excerpts

Bluegrass Award

( NOMINATED FOR AN AWARD in 2001 )

Maine Student Book Award

( NOMINATED FOR AN AWARD in 2001 )

Christopher Book Awards

( WON AWARD in 2000 )

Evergreen Young Adult Book Award

( NOMINATED FOR AN AWARD in 2002 )

Beehive Young Adults’ Book Award

( NOMINATED FOR AN AWARD in 2002 )

Garden State Teen Book Award

( NOMINATED FOR AN AWARD in 2002 )

Volunteer State Book Award

( NOMINATED FOR AN AWARD in 2004 )

ALA Top Ten Quick Pick

ALA Popular Paperback for Young Adults

IRA/CBC Young Adult’s Choice

“An unpretentious, accessible book that could provide entry points for a discussion about mental illness-its stigma, its realities, and its affect on family members…An insightful author’s note and brief list of organizations are included.” — Sharon Korbeck, Waupaca Area Public Library, WI in School Library Journal, October 1999

“The poems–some as short as five lines, none longer than three pages–have a cumulative emotional power that creeps up on the reader, culminating in a moving, unexpected line or phrase: “’ blink / and there you suddenly are / inhabiting your eyes again. . . and I’m feeling all lit up / like a jar filled / with a thousand fireflies.’ “ — Booklist, November 1999

“The simple verses are occasionally glib, but more often sensitively written, gathering cumulative power as they trace Cookie’s feelings of loss, despair, and loneliness…” — Horn Book Guide, April 2000

Connections

Read other novels in verse by Sones:

  • What My Mother Doesn’t Know ISBN 9781442493858
  • What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know ISBN 9781442493841
  • One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies ISBN 9781442493834

Read other books on dealing with mental illness in friends and family:

  • 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, ISBN 9781595141880
  • You Know What You Have to Do by Bonnie Shimko, ISBN 9781477816424

Bring in a school or family counselor to have a discussion and answer questions about mental illness.

Have students create their own free verse poem about a time in their life where they struggled with something.

Break students up into groups and ask them to discuss what they would do if they were in Cookie’s situation. Have each group share out with the class.

(Image from Amazon.com. Accessed February 22, 2015. Cover art copyright IT Stock Int’l/eStock Photo/Jupiterimages)

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