Small Things, by Mel Tregonning

A small boy worries about and struggles with many things: being left out of peer groups, not being good at sport, struggling at school work. Each thing seemingly small in itself, together they erode his self-confidence and he feels himself diminishing, followed by monsters who eat away at his sense of self. At risk of being overwhelmed, he finally gets help from his family, and starts to find renewed self confidence, as well as an awareness that he is not alone in the struggles: other people, too, feel haunted by unseen monsters.

Small Things is an amazing picture book. In graphic novel format, this wordless book says so very much about struggles with mental illness, self worth and anxiety. The black and white illustrations bring the boys’ troubles to life as monsters with tentacles and big teeth which float around him, and leave him broken, though when he gets help he becomes whole again. The monsters don’t completely disappear though, a reminder that healing can be an ongoing process.

This is a book which will speak to children and adults alike, and the story behind the book is one which should also be known, with the author sadly having lost her own battle with depression before the book’s completion.

Small Things, by Mel Tregonning
Allen & Unwin, 2016
ISBN 9781742379791

The Yearbook Committee, by Sarah Ayoub blows a kiss, then the screen goes blank. And, suddenly, I’m back to being alone with my thoughts.
As much as I’m happy for her, it’s really hard seeing her life unfold while mine stays still.
I only have to wait a year. As soon as this year is over, I’ll be able to get out. Out of my school, out of my home, out into the real world, and on to the rest of my life.

Gillian is the only one who actually wants to be on the yearbook committee. With her best friend gone,  her Dad’s political career seeming more important than his daughter, and the unwanted attention of bully it-girl Lauren, being on the committee could be the only good thing happening in her life. The other members aren’t so sure. Matty’s a loner with a terrible home-life, Ryan is the school captain but his imagined future as a soccer star has been wrecked by an accident, Tammi’s only there because Lauren wants her to spy, and Charlie is new to the school and wants to be back in Melbourne, where she belongs. They are five very different people, but it’s their job to catalogue one final year.

The Yearbook Committee is a multi-voice novel which follows these five unlikely partners as they traverse a difficult year both in and out of school. Their enforced time together results in new friendships as well as new challenges as members of the group face a range of problems including cyberbullying, parental expectations, a mother with crippling depression, shattered dreams and much more.

While the use of five first person viewpoint characters means it takes a little while to get to know who’s who, but each voice is distinct and as the story progresses the reader is taken inside each teen’s life, and, by novel’s end will really care what happens, and to whom.

A gripping read.

The Yearbook Committee, by Sarah Ayoub
Harper Collins, 2016
ISBN 9780732296858

Shadowcat by Julia Louise ill Anne Ryan

Edith worried she might be turning into a garden gnome.

Every day she sat alone, as still as a statue.

Sometimes she sat for so long that the grass grew

past her nose to tickle her eyelashes.

ShadowcatEdith worried she might be turning into a garden gnome.

Every day she sat alone, as still as a statue.

Sometimes she sat for so long that the grass grew

past her nose to tickle her eyelashes.

Edith is feeling blue. Since the arrival of her new baby brother, it seems that everything she does is wrong. She is sure no one will miss her if she turns into a garden gnome. Then she meets Shadowcat. Shadowcat can tell that Edith has stopped dreaming. Shadowcat reminds Edith how to find joy in simple things. While Shadowcat is there, Edith regains her joyfulness and dreaming. When Shadowcat is gone, Edith must learn to rely on herself to remember how to dance. Illustrations are painted in stain-glass window colours, warm and rich.

Edith feels left out now her family has grown to include a little brother. She is depressed, gradually closing down until she feels almost unable to do anything. The gnome-state is where she’s headed without intervention. Lucky for her, Shadowcat arrives. Childhood depression is increasing and Julia Louise’s Shadowcat offers an accessible text to explore this clinical and crippling sadness with young readers. Anne Ryan’s artwork is stunning, colourful and empathetic. Ideal for parents and teachers wanting to introduce and support feelings. Recommended for pre- and early-schoolers.

Shadowcat, Julia Louise ill Anne Ryan
Five Mile Press 2015
ISBN: 9781760067090

review by Claire Saxby, Children’s author and bookseller

Miss Understood, by James Roy

This is my story. (Not this bit, though – everything that comes after this.) But like I said, this is my story. Me, Lizzie Adams. It’s a story about some stuff that happened to me, and to some of the people I know, and it’s completely true. All of it. because I don’t lie, honest. And if I do ever happen tot ell a lie or do something ‘silly’, it’s always an accident. Never on purpose.

Miss Understood

Lizzie is often in trouble at her school, Our Lady of the Sacred Wimple College, so when she almost sets the school on fire, it’s the last straw. She finds herself expelled, and condemned to being home schooled by her mum. Mum is a teacher, so she knows all about how to teach Lizzie, but Lizzie isn’t impressed. At home there’s no playground, no friends, not even a proper recess. What she wants to do is to prove that she is responsible enough to go back to school, but that isn’t going to be easy.

Miss Understood is a heart warming, gently funny tale of being good and being misunderstood. Lizzie wants to do the right thing, but it doesn’t always work out right, something most readers will relate to, and the story also deals with important issues including adult depression and family in a way accessible to young readers.

Roy has a gift for making stories both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Miss Understood, by James Roy
Woolshed Press, 2012

Available from good bookstores and online.

The Shiny Guys, by Doug MacLeod

A dark look at mental disorders and the journeys on which their victims can be forced to travel. Though there is a liberal sprinkling of humour, this is a confronting look at how fantasy and reality can merge, and the mental health system.

The inmates of Ward 44 come in all shapes and sizes. Some are old, some are young, but we are united in one respect. Our brains don’t work. Or rather, they do work, just not in a way society finds acceptable. We have mental problems, some more serious than others.

Colin Lapsley is fifteen years old, and trapped in Ward 44, a psychiatric ward. Colin doesn’t think he’s crazy, but he does know that he’s visited by the shiny guys, strange shapes that flitter on the edge of his vision. He’s pretty sure that the new girl in the ward, Anthea, can see them too. His other friend in the ward, Mango, can’t see the shiny guys, but he is tormented by bad dreams, and has an attachment disorder – a compulsive need to hold on to people.

When the shiny guys start to show themselves to Colin more fully, he realises they want him to face up to the terrible things he did. It was his fault, he’s sure, that his little sister disappeared, and now it’s up to him to fix things, under the direction of the shiny guys. But as the  shiny guys get more insistent, Colin wonders if he’s going to be able to put everything right for himself and his family, as well as for Anthea and Mango.

The Shiny Guys is a dark look at mental disorders and the journeys on which their victims can be forced to travel. Though there is a liberal sprinkling of humour, this is a confronting look at how fantasy and reality can merge, and the mental health system. With the story set in 1985, MacLeod is careful to reassure readers that modern psychiatric wards are different than Ward 44, which is reassuring, yet the issues and illnesses faced by the characters are still very relevant. It’s also important to note that although some of the treatment methods used in the book (including electric shock therapy) are questionable, the staff of the ward are generally portrayed sympathetically as people doing the best they can with limited resources.

MacLeod is best known for his comedic offerings but, although The Shiny Guys has very serious subject matter, it is not a huge shift from his usual cleverness. In fact it is the use of humour which makes the story so palatable.

Recommended for teen and adult readers.

The Shiny Guys

The Shiny Guys, by Doug MacLeod
Penguin, 2012
ISBN 978014356530

This book is available from good bookstores or online from Fishpond. Buying through this link supports Aussiereviews.

I Had a Black Dog, by Matthew Johnstone

There are many different breeds of Black Dog affecting millions of people from all walks of life. The Black Dog is an equal opportunity mongrel.

Since Winston Churchill coined the phrase Black Dog to describe his own struggle with depression, the term has been a popular metaphor for the affliction. Clinical depression affects one in four women and one in six men during their lifetime. It affected author Matthew Johnstone and inspired him to write a book about it.

This is no ordinary book. Johnstone uses a format more familiar to readers of comic books or picture books, with large, cartoon-style illustrations and limited text. However, the tone is not light, as Johnstone explores the effects of depression and the ways it can be overcome. Throughout the book depression is characterised as a black dog, who appears in every picture impacting on the male character. When Johnstone talks about depression impacting on his relationships, taking my love and burying my intimacy, the black dog is there, in the middle of the bed between the character and his wife. When the character sits at a bar, drinking, the black dog is there perched on the next stool. Even when the character brings depression under control, the black dog is still there – but kept firmly on a leash.

This book will speak to all those who have been affected by depression – either first-hand, or through knowing a sufferer. Its appeal is in it simplicity – it is a quick read, but deeply effective.

A wonderful addition to library, health service offices and, of course, home collections.

I Had a Black Dog, written and illustrated by Matthew Johnstone
Pan, 2005